Saturday, May 30, 2015

Fifth Edition: This Time As A Player

The group I'm playing with does round robin style Dungeon Mastering.

Due to my back issues, I completely missed the Story Teller doing the World of Darkness with pretty much everything goes.

Thankfully, after thousands of dollars, two shots in the back, lots of physical therapy, and perhaps another shot to come, my back pain is under control enough that I can sit and stand and go out long enough to play.

The new GM is running the Hoard of the Dragon Queen. I wasn't impressed when I initially read the module but that's okay. I'm not running it so the Dungeon Master can do whatever he likes!

I made a Warlock.

Initially I was going to make a Blade Warlock. The idea seems very cool. Who doesn't want a character that you can form a lightsaber right?

But the mechanics didn't seem to back it. It seems more of a "cool" thing as highly effective.

Part of that goes into the whole dreaded crunch versus fluff. For example, to start off with the warlock, it makes it seem almost like a wizard in their quest for knowledge. But your primary stat is charisma. Probably to represent the bond between caster and pact master. 

But even in the quick build, it's secondary stat is recommended to be constitution.

And if you want to have some effectivity as a warlock with a blade? You'll need strength.

Not going to happen with point buy without some heavy sacrifices in other places.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not such a twink that I can't play such a character.

But I'm also not that interested in min-maxing a character where I need to worry about how best to make a character so I just went with a Warlock that's going to do the whole eldrich blast thing.

I went with the Old Ones pact and the GM is letting me use the default aberrant style baddies in Eberron for it.

He's using a few of the optional subsystems in his game. For example, the passive initiative rule. He's also got the action points going on and is allowing people to use information from the WoTC articles so we have a Warforged in the group.

But he's also using Blood and Steel for critical hits. The old Blood and Steel is a Mayfair supplement for their Role Aids line that was meant to supplement Advanced Dungeons and Dragons back in the day.

It's fantastic if you like horrific combat. It's terrible if you're a player in such a game. It came down to a vote and the people who are against it on the grounds that "monsters are always going to be rolling more dice than characters" lost again "But it's so cool!" and probably a bit of nostalgia since they were in heavy use with the groups I played with back then.

Mind you I was one who voted against them. But that didn't quite matter. Over the course of the game, three critical hits rolled; two against the party, one against some generic monster. Yeah, the prophecy is already coming true.

The GM wants us to have miniatures too. I'm probably going to use this guy:

That's a Bones Miniature, available from Reaper Miniatures unpainted. This particular paint job is from Rich Burge. It's a solid paint job. Mine will not look anywhere near as nice.

On a side note, one of my friends was flipping through his book and a section of multiple pages just feel out. We laughed, he raged and claimed it was the shoddy workmanship of Chinese but a quick read through shows that the book was printed in America. Good job my fellow Americans! He's going to contact WoTC and see if they'll comp him.

So what is everyone else playing or running these days? 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I vaguely remember seeing the movie Pet Sematary when it first came out in 1989. My recollections of it now, is that it was a mediocre movie. Like many of Stephen King's movies at the time.

I just finished the novel.

What a difference.

Pet Sematary has a small cast and a small local. The action is all relative to the area.

But it's tightly wound and amazingly well structured with every word written seeming to have a sort of inevitable lurch to the next one.

The novel focuses on the Creed family, freshly moved to Ludlow, an off the beaten path haven for raising a family. Save for the nearby road which thunders with heavy truck traffic. Early warnings of both mundane words and supernatural entities is ignored or forgotten until the unthinkable happens and then it gets worse.

In clumsier hands, the tale might have used short cuts to get to the main body of work. That would have been a mistake. One of Stephen King's strengths, or at least here and in other books with a small cast like the Shining, is allowing the build up of how believable the characters and their motivations are.

It's not interested in beating the reading over the head with how vile things are or how gross some particular vision is. Rather, it has a slow wind up that continues to beat the drum of anticipation while giving the readers glimpses into a larger world that has its own plans for the Creed family.

This is hinted at being something much older than the town, much older than America, perhaps older than the people who first lived there, coming from another country altogether. The opportunities to prevent the tragedy that happens, ignored.

To a point though, that brush off of the dangers, isn't natural. The book indicates strongly that everything proceeded as it must, because the power of the 'bad place' was on the rise. That there was no true ability to resist the flow of fate here.

But it's the struggle to do so which makes it a great read. It's the twists and turns that Stephen King puts the Creed family through that make it worthwhile. We get to see the origins of the animosity between Louis Creed and his father in law, and how after years, that when the opportunity to put that in the past arises, that Louis cannot. Not because he doesn't want to, but because it, indeed, the whole relationship with his father in law, is no longer important compare to the thing that Louis must do.

There are numerous instances like that, ranging from when Louis helps explain to his daughter the whole concept of death after visiting the Pet Sematary, to his daughter experiencing what happens when an elderly friend's wife dies to other, closer, more unconscientious horror happening.

As with other Stephen King novels, there is the occasional 'wink' as other work's he's written. For example, while under a sense of dread and driving on little sleep, almost falling asleep at the wheel, Rachel Creed passes the town of Salem's Lot. There were a few of these references in the novel and I'm sure in future novels, if Stephen King continues to write as he did here, there will be mentions of some tragedy happening in this small local.

I highly recommend Stephen King's novel Pet Sematary and hope that one day we'll get a limited series out of it that doesn't have to rush and ruin the mood and build up that the novel so skillfully delivers on.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Empty Throne: Saxon Tales Volume Eight by Bernard Cornwell

The Empty Throne is volume eight in the first person series The Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell. The series follows the adventures of a pre-united England through the eyes of pagan raised Uthred.

For those who've read the previous volumes, I'm sad to say, this will be a quick read. The writing flows smoothly with one event flowing into the next until the book is over and you're looking for the next chapter. It's like visiting old friends who may have a few new things to say but whose general personality and demeanor you're going to understand right away.

Uthred continues to make a great person to tell the tale. As a native of England captured as a young age and raised as a pagan, he worships Thor and knows the lore of the 'heathens' but he fights to protect the idea of England, of a united England, from these invaders.

Even as he does that, his very nature and demeanor make him an outcast among those he protects.

Other aspects of Uthred that are well done, include his level of competency. While he's a great swordsman, he's getting older, slower. While he's a great tactician and has cunning far above what his foes usually bring to the table, he doesn't allow for others to be as smart as he and sometimes falls prey to his own overconfidence.

Uthred starts off the novel still in pain from a wound inflicted upon him previously, but uses it to his own advantage, letting others think him weaker and closer to death then he actually is. It's cleverly done but Bernard Cornwell doesn't drag the recovery process out to the end of the novel.

Another unusual thing, is that Uthred is, among his other accomplishments, a father. His 'favorite' son is Uthred. If this wasn't a first person novel that might get a little confusing with two characters having the same name. His daughter, Stiorra, is someone he doesn't know.

Sadly, the reader's don't know her either because she quickly turns out to be quite an interesting character. Sent to a nunnery initially to learn the ways of the Christian God in order to better fit into the evolving society about her, Stiorra instead is much like her father, a pagan and one who is not afraid to get her hands bloody.

I say sadly the reader's don't get to know her because her role in this novel is relatively short and her future unknown to the reader in future volumes. Still, Bernard Cornwell has taken many threads of previous books and continued to weave them through current ones, including some methods of fighting that bring things full circle.

The book includes many of the hallmarks of a Bernard Cornwell book. There is conspiracy, alliances forged and broken, exploration of foreign lands, last minute saves and plans that go horribly awry. The action is fierce, The mood of another era.

If you're a fan of the History Channel's Vikings, The Saxon Tales should be right up your alley.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

I rarely get to the theater that often but have been fortunate enough that the last few I've seen have been great entertainment for completely different reasons.

Prior to seeing Mad Max Fury Road, I took my girlfriend to see Woman in Gold. Very solid movie, very moving.

My mom is getting on in age but she still loves many genres of music and movies. I asked her if she wanted to see Mad Max Fury Road. She was excited. Last movie she had seen in the theater was Django.

Since she gets out even rarer than I do, I sprung for the 3-D version.

It was well worth it.

Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron play broken action heroes in a world that makes no sense and should not exist.

It is a world with beautiful vistas consisting of barren landscapes with a surprising amount of variety to them. If they are not racing through desert sands, they are blasting through rocky badlands. If they are not stuck in mud and rain, they are fighting nature itself surrounded on all sides by tornadoes of sand and lightning of massive size and scope within sandstorms of such fury that smaller vehicles are thrown away like toys from a bored hand.

In many ways, the vehicles themselves are characters. While the introduction, as several previous movies in the series have done, relies on separating Max from his iconic vehicle, we get to see many more of all shapes and sizes. The weathering effects on these would be great for anyone interesting in seeing how metal ages and corrodes.

The visuals are so arresting I'm strongly considering getting the art book behind the movie. It looks like it has a lot of takes on how the world eventually evolved into what I saw in the theater.

Previous Mad Max movies have been filled with characters whose designs and catch phrases are so unique and iconic once seen, that they become meme's long after the movies have been in the theaters. Given that this is 2015, I'm sure that the main villain, Immortan Joe, played by an actor who was in the original Mad Max movie (no relation), is going to have numerous quotes attributed to him as are those who follow him and fight against him.

There are so many unique looking characters, that I'm eager to see Fury Road again. So many unique designs ranging from the 'Half-Life' warriors to the various musicians lead by a guitarist atop moving vehicles shooting fire out of the guitar. The soundtrack, at least the instrumental part, is pulse pounding and keeps the blood racing along with the drivers.

In terms of story and dialog, the film is razor thin. It's not that there is no dialog, but the movie's strengths don't rely on words. It's not that there isn't a story, but it's very basic on the surface.

Rather, the movie is about the action. While there are a few notable exceptions, such as when Max is trying to escape 'The Citadel', most of the film actually occurs on the move. Charlize Theron, playing a piston armed cyborg, Furiosa, drives a massive vehicle and is armed to the teeth. After an initial stand off with Max, the two work to escape from Immortan Joe.

This involves not only fighting off the hordes of Immortan Joe and his strange family, including a son whose strength no man is a match for, as well as his gun totting grand father and accountant brother who keeps a tally of the cost, but the people whose lands they cut through. This allows Max and Furiosa to fight several varieties in mad chase scenes and fiery explosions as opposed to one large showdown.

As someone who enjoys thinking about world building, one of the interesting things here, is that unlike just the pure quest for oil in the Road Warrior, we have a bit of mythology building here. Some weird type of Norse live a violent warrior life forever if you die in combat clashing against say, Max's only goal, that of survival. It's an interesting contrast and reminded me a bit of Beyond Thunderdome where there's a bit of setup and logic in how the people see themselves.

Max Max Fury Road is easily a film worth seeing on the big screen. The explosions, the chase, the characters. They don't have to be seen in a big screen but the experience will only be better for it.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Not The Bar

This is a transcription of some old written notes I stumbled across. When I was younger, it was a common theme that the only place characters meet initially was in a bar. So I decided to see if I could come up with anything.

1. Pilgrimage: A holy travel to purify the soul is in order. In a game system where characters gain power for a religious source, the characters may have to undergo an annual pilgrimage as part of their faith. In a game like AD&D, this would mean any spell casters with clerical powers. In Rolemaster, it would mean anyone with the channeling realm. Other characters could be guards, hisotrians, or also along for the spiritual side of the trip.

2. Marketplace: The characters could all be in one place at one time for a special holiday when the market is bristling with potential employers and victims.

3. Guild: If all of the players belong to one profession or all have the same abilities that overlap, they may all belong to a specialized guild. If there are crossovers they may belong to a mercenary group or adventuring group. Their own status in terms of power would be a good indicator of where they would stand in the guild.

4. In the Army: Similar to being in a mercenary guild but more focused.

5. Under Siege: The characters are performing their normal tasks when the area where they are staying comes under attack. If the characters are in a small town, they may be reknown as heroes or cowards. In a large city, they may have to guard a hidden entrance that leads out to where they area.

6. Open Season: Characters are all bounty hunters who are on the trail of a powerful foe.

7. The Quest: From searching to the Holy Gail to seeking magical swords, the characters have a specific quest that draws them together.

I can tell this is from the 80's as I mentioned AD&D there and Rolemaster. I was so into Rolemaster I had a few articles published in Grey Worlds back in the day, which were later incorporated into one of the compendiums.

Some of this has become fairly standard knowledge but might not have been so used back in the day! Hope it is of some use to the modern audiences.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Codex Gigas

Over on the dreaded Facebook, supreme slayer of freetime, I came across a post by "So Good So Bad" that discussed the Codex Gigas.

This is a huge tome coming in at some odd 36" by 20" by 8.7".

The picture used to illustrate how big this actually is showcases that:

Not only that, but as it's an incredibly ancient book, there are several bits that would make for great ideas to incorporate into a role playing game.

1. Lost Pages: The book has over the course of years gone from 320 pages to 160 pages. Some of these lost in modern times as the book was rescued from a fire by being thrown out of a window. Showcases that sometimes stuff is just lost.

2. Giant Spellbook: Might be too big to physically carry right away without a Bag of Holding or other such magic item. Spells might have to be studied from a central location.

3. The Writer: Supposedly written by one monk with no errors that sold his soul to the devil! Now there are several bits right there that can be used, but what if the Monk is still alive and it's only the Monk who can restore whatever pages can't be found? 

4. The Devil's Bible: It's called that because there is a huge picture of the devil within. Perhaps a spellbook or lore book has an inaccurate name due to something in the book that's there for illustrative purposes but not intent?

History is filled with wild examples of things that I'd not necessarily think up on my own which is why it's always great to keep an open mind.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Dragonslayers From Beowulf to St. George

Osprey has many lines in its military series. Osprey has expanded beyond those in their Osprey Adventurers series. One of those lines is Myths and Legends. It takes the information gathering plus art aspects crouched with resources related to the time in question, and presents it in a nice easily digestible format.

Dragonslayers is written by Joseph A McCullough. Jospeh has done other series in the Osprey Adventure line and his blog can be found here:

Illustrated by Peter Dennis. A Google Image search shows a vast array of his work. If you enjoy the cover, the interior has more work in a similar vein. I'm impressed with the artwork and glad to have picked up the book just for that alone. He's a talent I'll be looking more for in the future. His painting of Robin Hood for example? Top notch stuff.

The book is broken into different eras of Dragonslayers. Some of them people might be familiar with based on recent movies. Regular readers of this blog might even recognize some of them such as Beowulf who I mentioned during the A to Z Blog Challenge.

Joseph brings a lot of variety to the table. He not only talks about the actual 'slaying' itself, but what other significance it may have held. There are several bits that I found interesting just in an 'evolutionary' style.

For example, Dragons in the past were mainly known for having poisonous breath. As time passed, that changed to fire.

In terms of slaying a dragon not always being about slaying a dragon, when discussing St. Carantoc and King Arthur, Joseph brings home that the tale survives in large part thanks to the association with King Arthur. He also notes that it's another example of a religious force having greater authority over the Earth than any mortal ruler. Little bits like this are great examples not only of how history works, but how such elements can be incorporated into your own world building.

The role of Church and State is one that goes back and forth. St George himself is another religious figure and despite his 'knightly' role, he's on the side of the Church not only for his ability to kill dragons, but for his faith and ability to resist temptation and to throw off the ills that caused others to fall from the grace of Christ.

Not all such tales are so heavy though. There is a sidebar about various dragon slayers. Fans of the History Channel's Vikings show, will be pleased to see the name Ragnar Lodbrok included. It's interesting to see such bits as Joseph A. McCullough hits it from the fact that as 'unproven' or 'old' history if you will, there could be several interpretations.

There are a lot of things that I knew in here, that I'd long since forgotten. It's one of the reasons it's nice to read these semi-summary style books. For example, the tale of the Lambton Worm. It's one I was familiar with a long time ago. The tale of a young foolish man who leaves a foul worm to grow to monstrous proportions and has to come back and fight it. To claim victory he places various sharp objects about his armor. This theme of 'spiked armor' actually shows up several times around this era and it's an interesting twist to see how using your foe's own strength against him works.

The book also includes some non-Western dragonslayers including Japanese, Native Americans, and Russian. It makes for a nice break up of the standard 'Western' style fire breathing dragons. The only bad thing is that there are so many different types of dragons and so many different stories, that even at 80 pages, the book feels thin. That's just me wanting more great art and more tales of dragonslaying thought.

In addition to the art by Peter Dennis, several full page paintings, there are various images taken from historical sources ranging from wood grain carvings to photographs. It's a nice touch and adds that extra something that makes the Osprey books so entertaining. In addition to the main body of the text, due to the amount of information Joseph A. McCullough is breaking down, he includes a great bibliography for those who want more information.

For those who've been reading the other book in the Myths and Legends series, any recommendations? I'm excited by this direction Osprey has taken. This in addition to their numerous miniature table top games, like Ronin, give me more options from a brand I already trust.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Battle in the Dawn: The Complete Hok the MIghty by Manly Wade Wellman

In the original Dungeon Master's Guide, one of the authors listed in that original Appendix N, is Manly Wade wellman.

I had never read any of his material before.

I don't feel too bad about it. Much of his material, like many writers of his era, has long since been out of print when I was growing up.

On G+, where fellow readers had mentioned Manly Wade Wellman, one of the posts leading directly to an older Grongnardia post, that I decided to buy one of the books. Paizo has collected Manly Wade Wellman's material into two separate volumes.

One is Battle of the Dawn, the Complete Hok the Mighty. The second, which is out of print at places like Amazon, but still available from the Paizo site directly, is Who Fears the Devil.

Being an Amazon Prime member, I went with the Battle in the Dawn.

Battle of the Dawn is a trade paperback weighing in at 272 black and white pages. It collects all of the Hok the Mighty short stories and some additional material by Manly Wade Wellman.

I hate the cover. With some of their Planetary fiction line  the covers sometimes have nothing to do with the interior. I'm assuming that the blonde haired barbarian on center, is Hok. With an ornate two-handed sword that doesn't exist in the volume and a red haired lass in danger which also doesn't exist in the collection.  Shame as I know that one of the editors at Paizo, Erik Mona, is quite the collector and aficionado of these older stories.

While the cover is disappointing, the fiction of Manly Wade Wellman is not. The introduction by David Drake provides a peek into Wellman's mind and it's one that focuses on bringing elements of realism or at least what was thought of at the time as scientifically accurate.

Wellman's fiction compared to today's lumbering novels and multi-volume sagas is quick and to the point but never boring. While compared to the in-depth analysis of character's and motivations that might take place in today's fiction, Manly Wade Wellman brings you a colossus of a hero in Hok, the strongest, fastest, most clever of all his people as they fight against the more physically powerful neanderthals, called Gnorrls here, who are not tool users, or at least not to the same extent, that Hok and his people are.

During this trials and tribulations faced by Hok, we see the barbarian take a wife, create the bow, explore 'Atlantis', create a sword, and other adventurers in which Hok, who is at heart an explorer, partakes and triumphs in.

The biggest negative about the tales? Hok is untroubled by his troubles. Wellman makes it clear how powerful, clever, and what dynamic physical prowess Hok has and it's difficult to picture him in any real danger regardless of what he's facing. It makes him a fearless explorer, but also a touch one-dimensional. It works for these tales which hail from 1939-1941 and would make Hok a great contemporary in terms of ability, to say, Conan.

Manly Wade Wellman also provides some background to the tales. For example, I put 'Atlantis' in ' because Wellman doesn't actually refer to it as such in the text, In the text, it's called Tlanis. Wellman indicates that the tales of Hok are later attributed to other heroes such as Hercules. It's an interesting writing technique to pass off some legitimacy to his own hero and fits in well with the short narratives of the stories.

One of the things that stood out to me was Maie. She is a native of Tlanis and to me, she is far more of a warrior woman the the first attributed one, Jirel. "I have many such beads," Maie told him. "I am rich, I have lands and servants and warriors."

Although only a short story, Maie shows that she is not subject to others desires such as when Cos, the ruler of Tlanis attempts to take her by force. Rather, she leads a rebellion against him. She seems to have more agency although her actions due result in her passing.

In addition to the Hok tales, collected here is Day of the Conquerors. It's a tale of Hok's tribe versus Martian Invaders. It works surprisingly well and was clear of some of the more amusing antics of say, Mars Attacks. It's the only story that derails the 'historical' methodology.

Many Wade Wellman is one of the original Appendix N authors. The writing is fast and easy to read. If you're looking for a quick moving action based story, Battle in the Dawn is right up your alley.