Sunday, March 28, 2010

Robert Gibbs can't be all bad

Not that I like to inject politics into this blog, but I saw this on the Drudge Report and couldn't resist (it *is* fandom-related, after all). For those who can't read the title, it's the Star Wars Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy (ages 9-12) he's carrying.

Oh, and Robert Gibbs is the White House press secretary, in case you didn't know.

Friday, March 26, 2010

One Man's Definition of the OSR

"We play the old games, and the games that feel like the old games."

Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday to Leonard Nimoy. 79 years old today and a huge part of my childhood.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dragon Types

A couple of months ago, I posted a few thoughts about dragons, certainly the most iconic monster of the game (and with a name like Dungeons & Dragons, you can hardly blame it). As is my wont, I've been ruminating on these beasties in the back of my mind since then, especially as I've begun to work on the Emprise!™ Bestiary.

Specifically, I'm wondering if the colors and metal types are the best ways to describe these creatures. Could they not be better served by being named for their breath weapon? Their physical attributes? Their habitats? A combination?

So instead of red, white, green, black, and blue, we could have fire, frost, forest, swamp, and lightning dragons. Brass, bronze, copper, and gold would become sand, sea, horned, and wingless dragons.

I dunno... am I just over-thinking this? Is messing with the colors/metals of the dragons just change for the sake of change? Or is colors and metals a game-mechanicky holdover that is best left behind in the interest of verisimilitude?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Multi-Generational Gaming

And in this particular post, I'm not talking about teaching our kids to be gamers (although that's certainly an interesting topic and worthy endeavor), but rather the notion of playing a long-term game in which the characters marry, have children, grow old, and then the players take on the roles of the children, beginning the cycle over again.

As far as I'm aware (and I may well be wrong), the only game that this has actually been incorporated as an integral aspect of the design of a game is Pendragon by Greg Stafford, first published by Chaosium in 1991 and most recently by White Wolf in 2006. I've never actually played it myself (a fact which I regret, especially so as a friend of mine in the area has been running a campaign for the better part of a year now, and I just don't have the time to participate), but the idea that one would not only play a character, but the descendants of that character, has always fascinated me, so much so that I wonder if it could be applied to D&D.

The key seems to be the establishment of a rich social component of the setting, in which the rules of marriage (in terms of who can, or would want to, marry who) are spelled out in some fashion, which would in turn lead to some sort of table determining whether or not a particular marriage would be considered viable and the proposal accepted. The sort of dynastic interplay that such a system implies is absolutely rife with potential in terms of role-playing opportunities and "deep background" for a setting; we see the barest glimpses of it in the dynastic struggles described by Gary Gygax in the Great Kingdom, and in the thwarted marriage of Prince Thrommel which forms a significant part of the background for the original Temple of Elemental Evil module.

But D&D, one might legitimately argue, is somewhat more contracted in its time scale than a game like Pendragon. In D&D, the player characters are always on the go, and the opportunities for dynastic considerations are somewhat limited.

However, I could easily see this idea as an extension of the"lost" D&D endgame. In their early days, the characters are looking for loot and adventure. Eventually, around levels 10-14 or so, they settle down, found their own freeholds, and then... what? I contend that, if a campaign were geared for such a thing, they marry, have children, and then their children start off in search of loot and adventure. And thus begins the whole cycle anew. It could also give some more use for the social class and circumstances of birth tables from Unearthed Arcana.

Consider the case of the four classic classes; cleric, fighter, magic-user, and thief. The cleric founds a temple, rises in the Church hierarchy, etc. His daughter, brought up as a novice in the temple, is then sent out as a wandering priestess in her own right, complete with a letter of introduction from her loving father. (Assuming his faith doesn't require celibacy, of course; in such cases, a young novice at the "Gen1" character's temple would  more than fill the bill). The fighter clears land, founds a freehold, and in the process expands the boundaries of the realm (or, civilizes some of the wild borderlands, or re-civilizes a small portion of the lost empire that preceded him, etc.). His son, trained to the family calling, similarly sets out. The magic-user who has also cleared land and set up his tower has trained his own boy... The thief, now head of his own guild/family/whathaveyou, sends out his son to learn the family business the same way he did; from the bottom. You get the idea.

But an endless parade of sons and daughters to fill the ranks of the party might well be boring. The players may, if they wish, start off brand new characters. It really wouldn't matter; the Gen1 characters are now (mostly) NPCs, and everyone needs a family.

The question of time is a legitimate one, but one which can be overcome with a slight change in play style. In short, it requires that the DM actually keep track of time. In my own campaign, I keep track of time, and when winter starts to roll around, the player characters are pretty much grounded until spring, unless something extraordinary comes up during the colder months. That serves to advance time. Mine is also a pretty far-ranging campaign, so there's a lot of travel between cities and kingdoms that also eats up time.

And, honestly, in a game that recognizes the passage of time as a necessary thing, I might ask if its really that much different for the game master to say, "okay, it's been five years, and all of a sudden a messenger from the Duke shows up...", as opposed to, "okay, you spend five days in the inn healing your wounds, and then a messenger from the Duke shows up...".

Note that I am not saying that this style of play should necessarily take the place of the "classic" end-game of politicking and large-scale battles (although it certainly could, if the DM wanted it to). Rather, I see it as turning into something of an equilibrium. You play characters "conventionally" for a few years, then, once they advance to higher levels and the play becomes worn, the "end game" clicks in and they are running their own freeholds and founding dynasties. Once that end of the game has run its course, and the players are back to hankering for the classic dungeon crawl, wilderness adventure, and urban intrigues, the next generation can take over.

It's not something I've done myself, but the more I think about it, the more I just might nudge things in that direction.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I'll see your Shatnerday and raise you... barbershop quartet.

(With all due apologies and love to Jeff!)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Gaming in The Hollow

I remember these Disney short features from when I was a kid, and they would show them on Wonderful World of Disney. I had the opportunity to show this to my own daughter tonight in lieu of a bedtime story (we're between books at the moment), and was struck by just how wonderful the introduction to the setting was, and how applicable to an RPG setting. Bing Crosby's absolutely stunning narration definitely helps.

"If we could but journey back to that remote period in American history when Manhattan was but a market town, we could discover in the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the shores of the Hudson, the little village of Tarrytown. And just beyond, nestled deep in the low, rolling hills, a sequestered glen. It's a quiet, peaceful place, and yet, somehow... foreboding. For it abounds in haunted spots, twilight tales, and local superstitions. The best known story, however, concerns a certain itinerant schoolmaster who once frequented these parts. Indeed, some say his melancholy spirit still haunts the vicinity."

Tell me that doesn't sound like the intro text to one hell of an first-level module. A tiny hamlet within traveling distance of, but isolated from, a larger village. "Haunted spots... and local superstitions." Oh, rumors abounding of... things... out in the woods that fill the rest of the Hollow just beyond the farmland. Enough to fill a hundred rumors to be found at Ye Olde Schnooker and Schnapps Shoppe-- doubtless told in the form of tall tales told and retold over flagons of ale ("I once went out to the marsh beyond the brook, and let me tell you what I saw..."). And prominent figures like the Van Tassel family, the Sleepy Hollow Boys, and Brahm Bones.

And incidentally, the whole of Disney's Bing Crosby version of the Headless Horseman is well worth watching. I dearly love the Johnny Depp film, but this will always hold a spot in my heart. Here's the rest:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Invasion of the Grognards! at Dexcon 2010

The reception of the Castle of the Mad Archmage at this year's Dreamation convention was so good that I am enthused to try something a bit more ambitious at this year's Dexcon. Dexcon will be held at the gorgeous Hyatt hotel in Morristown, NJ from July 7-11, 2010 (unfortunately the same weekend as Historicon, which I will be forced to miss once again in favor of Dexcon).

Folks responded so well to my running of AD&D 1E that, in addition to expanding my own series of games (probably two sessions of CotMA, plus perhaps a module from the classic tournament archives from the early days), I would like to invite my fellow old-schoolers to attend and run some games. If I can get two other OSR folks to join me, perhaps we could put together a panel on "What is the Old School Revival?" or something like it. If we can pull it off, I think this would be the ideal sort of thing for TARGA to hype (and vice versa).

I'd love it if a couple other people were running OSR games; maybe Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Barbarians of Lemuria, Gamma World, Tunnels and Trolls, etc. I think we could gain a lot of traction if we cross-promoted them; maybe put up flyers advertising all the games (and panel, if we can get one together). Hell, I might dig out Afrika Korps or something to get at least one hex-and-counter wargame on the schedule. I think this could be a lot of fun, and I know there are at least a few of my OSR comrades in easy driving distance of Morristown. Perhaps the cost of a hotel room could be split, to make it even easier to attend.

What say ye? Anyone interested? Either reply in the comments or send me an email directly; joseph at josephbloch dot com.

UPDATED 3/24/10: So far, we've got me running AD&D 1E, someone running Stonehell with Labyrinth Lord rules, someone running Moldvay Red Box edition, and maybe someone running Star Frontiers and another maybe for Gamma World. I am getting really jazzed about this. Keep 'em comin'!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Rob Pardo of Blizzard Explains Why I'd Hate WoW

So my wife and several of our friends are huge World of Warcraft players, and dutifully plunk down their $14.95 a month to add to Blizzard Entertainment's coffers (which I can only even remotely justify by my fantasy that they're using the money to finance a secret private space program which will eventually put NASA out of the business of ferrying people and equipment to orbit, but I digress).

I found this presentation by Rob Pardo, who is apparently some sort of muckety-muck at Blizzard Entertainment (the executive vice-president of game design, so the presentation tells me), the folks who create and run World of Warcraft. In it, he goes through some of the design philosophies that underlie the way they approach the design of their game. And in so doing, he gives a quick bullet-point presentation of why I would absolutely loathe World of Warcraft. It is, in a nutshell, the anti-OSR.

Some of these criticisms are going to naturally apply to all such MMORPG's, as there are simply limits they cannot avoid. However, if those limits prevent me from playing (or, perchance, designing) a game that I'd like to play, I'm going to dump on them. But nobody said this was a fair blog, now did they? In the order in which they are presented...
The challenge is to keep players jumping through the correct hoops, while making those hoops fun.
Okay, you lost me at "jumping through the correct hoops". I don't want there to be correct hoops. I want there to be a million hoops, and most of them aren't "correct". Save the hoops for the trained poodles; I want to explore a world and be able to exercise some influence upon it. That's fun, capiche?
keep game play simple in terms of mechanics and objectives, but design the game in a way that the challenges scale with the ability of play
The whole idea of "the challenges scale with the ability of play" annoys me. Sometimes things are just meant to be run away from, period. You're a second level fighter and you come on a dragon? It's not going to be a very young dragon just because you're second level, but ancient if you were 15th. The environment should not alter just because it is first encountered by someone who is of a particular level, or class, or what have you. The environment simply is. And, in that same bullet-point, they say that they had consciously designed their :
death penalty as a 'tax' of sorts where you'd have to pay to repair your gear,
So that death isn't death at all. Absolutely no investment in the character. Why bother? There's no risk. And where there's no risk, there's no real reward. Just bang on the keys enough times, and you'll reach 60th level.
But from a development standpoint, if the majority of your player base is using addons to modify the existing UI, that's a clue that something wasn't quite right with the way the UI was originally designed.
And here I get a real sense of the WoW designers (or maybe it's MMORPG designers in general; it really makes no difference to me) as control freaks with insecurity issues. "Oh noes! Someone is viewing our game in a way we didn't intend!" Could it not simply be that different people have different needs, and preferences, and that designing something with a stripped-down UI in the first place, that actually encouraged the players to design their own modifications, might be a valid way of doing things? It'd be the equivalent of designing a game where it was almost impossible to design a character properly without using the company-provided tool. But nobody would do that...
Every unit, every class should feel unstoppable, overpowered and epic -- because it's just more fun that way.
I... just... damn. I weep. Remember that old Twilight Zone episode where the hoodlum dies and goes to the afterlife? He gets everything he wants; wins at roulette, always scores with the beautiful girls, absolutely everything. And after a few weeks he's going nuts from the boredom. That's when he realizes that he's not in Heaven after all... That's what WoW strikes me as from that line. A bunch of min-maxing twinks who just want to get their druid to 48th level for the sake of doing so. Story? Setting? Bah. It's all about the levels and the lucre, baby.
Less is more when 'less' is concentrated into one simple, overpowered and fun class to play.
See above. I want a fighter-magic-user-thief-cleric-assassin-ranger, damnit! That would be so fun!
Quest text shouldn't be necessary to understand the story -- it should be there to enhance the story that's already obviously playing out.
Vapid: va·pid (\ˈva-pəd, ˈvā-\), adjective. Lacking liveliness, tang, briskness, or force : flat, dull. "A story that relies on nothing but unsupported scenes that progress across the screen without any sort of context in the larger game setting, no matter how crammed full of superficial visual bells and whistles, is nothing but vapid get-me-to-the-next-level game design that commands as much intellectual engagement as a game of Donkey Kong." Synonyms: see insipid.
You started out gaining 100% xp, but the longer you played, the more that percentage dropped, eventually falling to 50%. This was to discourage players from playing more than a few hours at a time. Beta players hated this system -- so Pardo changed it by doubling the amount of xp required to reach maximum level in the game, starting players out with 200% xp gained, and slowly dropping it to 100% xp as they played. Same effect, same numbers, the only difference was the way the numbers were presented -- and people applauded the 'change'.
They just keep hammering this point home. It's like pinball machine point inflation. It's utterly meaningless in a relative sense, but treat your players like they're five-year-olds demanding more toy cars, and they'll never care that they're getting Matchbox cars instead of Dinky Toys.
As it stands, when you summon a mount it simply appears beneath you in a puff of smoke -- the animation department suggested that it would be really cool if you'd actually call your mount and have it run to you so you could hop on it, going so far as to mock up the animation for it. But there was a downside to this -- it took several seconds for that animation to play out, and if say, a rogue jumped out to stun lock you, you probably didn't want to be stuck stunned and rapidly dying while watching your horse gallop up to meet you.
Not only must they have it all, but they must have it all now. Three seconds for an animation to play out? Unbearable! The players in my campaign, for comparison, made fourth or fifth level after about a year of play. Uphill, in the snow, both ways.
With over 11.5 million players in WoW alone, it's clear Blizzard is doing something right -- and the panel did an excellent job of shedding a little light on what that something is.
I confess it's difficult to argue with such numbers; is it just a generational thing, maybe? Kids today, to coin a phrase, are just lazier, or perhaps have more of a sense of entitlement? (I wouldn't be the first to make the observation.) Back in the day, TSR had sales of around $16 million in 1982. Not bad, but hardly the mind-blowing numbers that Blizzard commands (come on, unveil that space elevator already, guys!). Then again, it was a different world, and a different game. That game demanded some imagination, some work, some investment. When a character died, that was (mostly) the end. Grab the dice.

I think what gets me here is the attitude of the players. Clearly, there are a whole bunch of folks out there who like this sort of game. Get everything you want, immediately, loudly, and with no risk. I suppose it makes sense on a certain primate-evolutionary-psychology level, like eating chocolate and starchy foods endlessly. But man, that's not a game I think I'd ever find interesting.

Forgive me Mr. President, but they hate us with every fiber of their existence. We love freedom. We love independence. To feel. To question. To resist oppression. To them, it is an alien way of existing they will never accept......

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On Game Masters Guides

The "classic three" division that began with AD&D-- Player's Guide, Game Master's Guide, Monster Book-- has been taken as a sort of gospel by a number of other games (although certainly not all). I've explored this somewhat in an earlier post that focused on the player's guide. But now I'd like to turn my attention to the game master's guide.

Just what function does it serve?

As I indicated in my thoughts on the player's guide, I think that most of the actual rules of play belong there. After all, they are the players. And the players, it seems to me, need to know how to play. So that's where the rules for combat, and spells, and (obviously) character creation and the like need to be. The monster book is self-explanatory; it's something that could, in theory, be folded into a game master's book, but due to logistical reasons, there's a compelling argument to break it out.

To understand the role of the game master's book, on the other hand, requires a brief analysis of the game master's role. The game master is referee and interpreter of the rules, sure. But in an old-school type game, he is also the person who creates the adventure and the campaign in which it takes place. Newer versions of the game tend to rely on pre-published adventures and settings, simply because there's a relatively high amount of preparation time required to make sure the encounters are properly scaled, etc. (That is not intended as any sort of derogatory remark, I should add; it's simply a function of the more "even" approach to scenario design built into the new rules.)

There, I think, is where a game master's book can shine. There will, of necessity, be certain game-mechanics type material that isn't appropriate for the players to have everyday access to. (Although, as an aside, I think I can say with complete certainty that I have never used the "Detection of Invisibility Table" on p. 60 of the AD&D DMG; there seems to be a lot of "flyover country" in there, and that's a phenomenon I'd like to avoid, hopefully with better organization.) And a certain amount of Game Mastering 101 is probably needed, although in Emprise!™ it will probably find its way into the boxed set that is specifically aimed at beginners.

But I feel that the best use of the limited number of pages in a game master's book is practical tools to assist in the creation both of scenarios and campaign settings. There will be lists of magical items and treasures, to be sure. In fact, I'm putting together an entire section just on non-magical treasure; it'll be a (hopefully) quick and easy way to put together treasure troves that are much more interesting than simply "a chest with 5,000 g.p. inside". And I think the potential of treasure maps has been long overlooked.

But also a running commentary on some of the implications built into that player's guide, and how they impact the decisions the game master must make. For example, the description of the thief class takes for granted the existence of a thieves' guild or similar organization. How does the game master handle such a thing? What are the consequences of not having one? The same applies to most of the classes, and the races also have their own setting-impacting assumptions that must be dealt with. What will happen to a campaign that allows drow, deep gnomes, and gray dwarves? What happens to a campaign that doesn't allow them?

Plus I want to take the concept of the Outer Planes out of the realm of hard-and-fast rules and turn them into something much more setting specific. There's no earthly reason that just because Oerth has the "wheel of the outer planes" as a feature, that Toril needs to have the same thing as well. Or Athas. Or any home-grown campaign. Out will go planar dogma, and in will go creative seeds for different ways to approach the outer planes (and, once more, advice on the consequences of taking things in different directions; what do you do with an ice para-elemental if you don't have para-elemental planes in the first place?).

I'm also coming to the conclusion that a full-blown separate book on gods and religions isn't required. Again in keeping with the idea that such things are much better when they're campaign-specific, I might include one or two "sample pantheons" (probably of the better-known deities like the Greek or Norse), along with detailed examples of special powers they grant to their priests, what their temples look like (imagine a work-up on the order of the Temple of the Eye from Hall of the Fire Giant King, and you'll understand what I'm thinking about) and ample commentary on the design of such things. Give some examples, give some advice, and push 'em into the lake. THAT's how I want to approach the vast majority of campaign design in this book.

On the level of the individual adventure, the toolbox concept will once again come into play. Sure, there will be advice on basic dungeon design, theory on sandboxes and megadungeons and and set-piece encounters and the use of plot. Again and again and again chock full of advice on how the choices the game master makes early on might have an impact down the line.

But I'm also a big fan of things that are immediately practical. I'm not sure about a random dungeon generator (those things are never quite as neat and useful in reality as they seem to be on paper), but certainly some random tables are in order to help with certain design elements; being able to design memorable (but hopefully not cardboard) NPCs on the fly, for example. Traps and tricks. Stand-out dungeon design elements; quick ways of working up details for shrines, statues, bottomless chasms, humanoid lairs, and so forth. More than "mere" dungeon dressing... well, yeah, I'm a big fan of that kind of stuff (and I love dungeon dressing too).

So, anyway, that's where my mind is currently on the subject of the game masters guide, it's function and contents. Now, back to work with me on this rainy and windy Saturday afternoon (we've already had one tree go down, which missed the house by about five feet, I might add).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Customs and Folklore of the Flanaess

I'm always fascinated by hearing about strange (to me) customs, habits, superstitions, and other bits of trivia about other countries. In my gaming, I'm also always looking for subtle ways to differentiate one land from another. I find these small, subtle clues as to where the characters might be are a lot more fun than just announcing "Okay, now you've crossed the border into Tenh". Most of them probably don't have much direct application in terms of game mechanics, but they could be used as hooks for discovering spies, accidentally insulting a host, etc.
  • Almor: Glass eyes are considered very rude in Almor. Those missing an eye should wear an eye patch.
  • Bandit Kingdoms: Natives of the Bandit Kingdoms are taught as children to swing a sling counter-clockwise, regardless of what hand the sling is in.
  • Bissel: Brides in Bissel traditionally wear gowns of red with a veil.
  • Blackmoor: Orange cats are considered bad luck in Blackmoor.
  • Bone March: Natives of the Bone March will say “white pine” upon waking, as a good luck charm.
  • Celene: When both moons are full, the entire country of Celene is given to revels and feasting.
  • Dyvers: The lord mayor of Dyvers wears three crowns on formal State occasions, hence the three crowns on the city’s arms.
  • Ekbir: In Ekbir, the letter “s” is pronounced as “sh”, and this habit can identify them unless great pains have been taken to correct it.
  • Frost Barbarians: It is considered unlucky to strike a new fire during the day with flint and tinder; one should either use a bow or take fire from an already-existing source.
  • Furyondy: It is customary for the inns and taverns in Furyondy to serve watercress with meals as a garnish or small salad.
  • Geoff: In Gorna, street food vendors must wear a green sash, which indicates that they have paid for a license. Patronizing a vendor without a sash is punishable by imprisonment.
  • Gran March: Those in the Gran March have an affinity for rats as pets, but only if they’re white.
  • Great Kingdom: Farmers in the Great Kingdom always yoke their oxen four abreast.
  • Greyhawk: Magic can not be used to solve capital crimes within the city limits.
  • Highfolk: Most of the homes in Highfolk are of timber-frame construction, with intricate patterns of dark brown beams against whitewashed walls of wattle and daub.
  • Horned Society: None of the houses in the Horned Society have access to their attic from the interior rooms; evil spirits would be able to enter the home.
  • Ice Barbarians: Wine is considered a delicacy amongst the Ice Barbarians, often worth ten times its value in warmer climes.
  • Idee: It is illegal for anyone to sell oranges in Idee; the fruit is considered an exclusive franchise of the Count.
  • Irongate: A handshake accompanying an agreement is considered legally binding in Irongate, but only if both parties spit into their palms prior.
  • Iuz: Saying the name of Saint Cuthbert in public is punishable by imprisonment within the lands of Iuz.
  • Keoland: Someone from Keoland will always enter a house on his left foot, and will always leave it on his right.
  • Ket: There are no barbers in Ket. One must go to a masseuse to get a haircut or a beard trim.
  • Lordship of the Isles: The cuisine of the Lordship of the Isles features hot and spicy food; especially that made with the hottest pepper known in the Flanaess, the morto chile.
  • Medegia: Long mustachios are currently in style in the See, amongst the upper classes and those of the middle class who seek to emulate them.
  • North Province: Clowns in North Province traditionally dress in shades of gray and green.
  • Nyrond: Bacon is never served in Nyrond without honey as a condiment.
  • Onnwal: Nodding one’s head up and down in Onnwal means “no”. Shaking it side-to-side means “yes”.
  • Theocracy of the Pale: If a man swears in front of a woman or child of the Pale, they will say “Light!” to expunge the transgression.
  • Perrenland: Dogs with eyes of different colors are considered extremely lucky in Perrenland.
  • Plains of the Paynims: Among the Paynims, only those directly descended from Al’Akbar may wear a red turban.
  • Pomarj: Throwing food at one’s host is a sign of gratitude and an indication that the food is appreciated and well-liked.
  • Ratik: It is illegal to put tomatoes into fish stew in Ratik; the national dish is a cream-based stew.
  • Rel Astra: Schools in Rel Astra follow a “trimester” schedule, rather than four semesters.
  • Rovers of the Barrens: Three is considered an unlucky number among the Rovers of the Barrens.
  • Sea Barons: Every ship of the Sea Barons has a small bag of silver pieces tied to the top of the tallest mast, as an offering to Procan, should the ship go down.
  • Sea Princes: The sailors of the Sea Princes believe that wearing an earring will prevent them from drowning.
  • Shield Lands: Peasants in the Shield Lands almost invariably wear a scally cap in colors representative of those of their liege lord.
  • Snow Barbarians: It is considered a grave insult to start eating amongst the Snow Barbarians before one’s host.
  • South Province: Someone from South Province will invariably try to decline a gift the first time it is offered. Normal etiquette is to offer it a second time, at which time the recipient will reluctantly accept.
  • Spindrift Isles: Punctuality is highly prized in the Spindrift Isles. Those who are habitually tardy are considered social misfits.
  • Sterich: Owls are considered omens of death in Sterich.
  • Stonefist: Refusing an offer of a drink (alcoholic) is considered to be very insulting in Stonefist.
  • Sunndi: Farmers in Sunndi will never stack their hay higher than eye level.
  • Tenh: You can always tell a horse that has been shod in Tenh; the shoe will have nine nails (six are most common elsewhere).
  • Tiger Nomads: The Tiger Nomads consider opals to be unlucky, except for those born in the month of the snake, for whom they are a lucky sign.
  • Tusmit: One should never give flowers as a gift in Tusmit. Flowers are reserved for funerals, the ill, and weddings.
  • Ulek, County of: Cow milk is not used within the county of Ulek. They drink goat’s milk instead.
  • Ulek, Duchy of: Fortifications in the Duchy of Urnst will almost always have seven sides; seven is a lucky number.
  • Ulek, Principality of: Green Man motifs are found on most pottery, cups, etc. made in the Principality of Ulek.
  • Ull: It is considered rude to kiss in public in Ull.
  • Urnst, County of: You can always tell someone from the County of Urnst; they put their forefinger along the dull side of the knife when cutting meat.
  • Urnst, Duchy of: No one in the Duchy of Urnst will use a broom after dark. It sweeps away the luck of the house.
  • Veluna: Hunting on Godsday is forbidden in Veluna.
  • Verbobonc: Giving a gift of anything sharp (including knives, swords, scissors, etc.) is considered a final good-bye gift, symbolic of cutting a relationship.
  • Wild Coast: In Hardby, the woman always leads when dancing.
  • Wolf Nomads: If a Wolf Nomad is killed, his or her relations going out to the 7th degree can claim monetary restitution, on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • The Yeomanry: Men don’t shake hands in the Yeomanry; they hug.
  • Zeif: Those in Zeif have a distinctive method of wrapping a turban which is immediately identifiable by any other Bakluni.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Film Review: Alice in Wonderland

Minor spoilers ahead.

I had the chance to see the new Alice in Wonderland film by Tim Burton this weekend (oddly, I didn't see it with my 8 year old daughter, who saw it the day before with my wife). I liked it immensely, but I have some reservations and some observations.

I should preface this review by saying that I have never read either Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. My experience with the "Wonderland" milieu is limited to the 1951 Disney cartoon (and only dim recollections of that, I might add) and the pair of iconic AD&D modules "The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror" and "Dungeonland", penned by Gary Gygax in the early 1980's*. So I fall firmly into the camp of those who are unfamiliar with the original source material, and whose knowledge is based entirely on secondary sources and pop-culture references.

First off, most people don't seem to realize that this is not an original film. It is not an interpretation of the books, it is not a re-imagining of the material. It is, in fact, a sequel. Specifically, it is a sequel to the 1951 masterpiece, also done by Disney, Alice in Wonderland. 

This is something that's alluded to throughout the film, and is carried throughout in both the visual design of the picture as well as the plot (although through some clever contrivances, the writer manages to obfuscate that particular point to the non-observant for quite some time).

Let me get the obvious out of the way. This is a visually stunning film. The visual design really brings Wonderland (or "Underland" as it's called; I might just take that name up as a generic short-hand name for the mythic underworld of megadungeons and the like) to life. I only saw the film in 3D, not Imax 3D, and I found the 3D technology somewhat lacking. There were shadows and blurring (especially when there were light-colored backgrounds or foregrounds). And aside from the iconic scene where Alice falls down the rabbit hole, there really weren't any places where the 3D was actually necessary or even warranted. I felt like I could have seen this film in regular 2D and been just as satisfied with it, visually. Danny Elfman's score was workmanlike, and the Avril Levigne song at the end credits was completely unnecessary.

One thing I didn't like was the fact that the Mad Hatter (played, as everyone knows, by long time Tim Burton collaborator Johnny Depp) had such a prominent role. I know why he did. Johnny Depp puts butts in seats. And Depp did a good enough job in the role (I could have done without the foreshadowed dance at the end, and the dip into a Scottish accent from time to time was interesting the first time or two, but would have been much more so had he done a whole range of accents, à la Tony Randall as Dr. Lao. But I wish the story could have been written with less Hatter and more Alice. Maybe his screen time could have been filled by the Walrus and the Carpenter, or other minor characters that never made it into this version. And the continual unnecessary addition of a "y" at the end of the Jabberwock's name was either sloppiness on the part of the writer or a conscious nod to the Terry Gilliam film. I choose to believe it was the latter.

But these are, ultimately, minor quibbles. What really sold this film to me was the fact that it moved the story of Alice and (W)underland forward. This is a Wonderland ruled over by the Red Queen, and it's a Wonderland that's seen better days. It has a wonderfully worn quality, and a lack of spark that, once one realizes what's going on, makes perfect sense. I love it when things that I originally put down as flaws are revealed to actually have a purpose. This Wonderland is dreary and tired for a reason. And that reason is that it's been fifteen years since Alice's original visit to Wonderland. And it is here that we see that this film is, in actuality, a sequel to the 1951 version. Or some close approximation.

We even get some flashbacks to that happier time. We see the Tea Party as it was when Alice first arrived in Wonderland. We see how the Red Queen came to dominate the landscape. The design of those flashbacks seems deliberately to harken back to the 1951 Disney version. Even the design of some of the characters-- notably the March Hare-- seems to be a deliberate nod. And I loved it. Excellent stuff, and it turns this film from yet another rehash of a classic story into something that makes the story more than it was originally.

On the whole, this was a great film, although it could have been done without the 3D technology and been just as enjoyable. I had some personal questions about some of the choices the writer made, but they were swept away by the vision of the story and the visual make-up of the film. I would absolutely recommend this to anyone, and in terms of those DM's who might be looking for ways to adapt their copies of EX1 and EX2 to an audience that might be a bit jaded with the originals, this film most certainly gives the enterprising DM some ideas for ways to move the story forward in ways that will give his players nightmares.

* Oh, I should add that my knowledge of Wonderland is also informed by the following. Just in the interest of full disclosure. Man, Grace Slick was so hot back then. And no, I don't remember when this song came out; I'm not that old. Although I was alive when it did. Now get off my lawn.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Forbidden Dozen

One of the things that's always puzzled me is why, when WotC was putting together the System Reference Document (SRD) for Dungeons and Dragons 3.X, they took several creatures out of public circulation by name, by declaring them as part of their Product Identity. For those who might not remember the whole list, here it is:
  • beholder
  • gauth
  • carrion crawler
  • tanar’ri
  • baatezu
  • displacer beast
  • githyanki
  • githzerai
  • mind flayer
  • illithid
  • umber hulk
  • yuan-ti

I've got to admit, I had to turn to Google to find out what a gauth was. But the other choices are no more clear to me now than when they first came on the scene. What is so special about these twelve (11, really; mind flayer and illithid being different names for the same creature) that makes them part of the Product Identity of D&D?

This certainly can't be an attempt to cripple other companies from making a D&D emulator; both S&W and LL proved that with their only-slightly-different names for the carrion crawler. Tanar'ri and baatezu were always demons and devils anyway, so that's a no-brainer. And if they thought enough of the mind flayers to declare their other name, illithid, as product identity, why didn't they also include the other name of the beholder? Why is eye tyrant missing from the list?

Beholders and mind flayers I can almost understand. They're certainly an original creation for the game, and an iconic image to be sure. But umber hulks? Yuan-ti? Displacer beasts? These are hardly definitive creatures as far as I can tell. Certainly they don't seem to be a part of what I might call the "product identity" of the game. And yet here they are. I confess to a certain level of bafflement.

Anyone have any insights into why these 12 were chosen as the Forbidden Dozen?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Fiend Folio. Ugh.

Ugh. Just ugh.

I've had cause, as part of the design of Emprise!™, to go through the 1981 Fiend Folio in some detail. Sure, it's been a constant companion on my desk for months now, as I use it liberally in stocking the Castle of the Mad Archmage, but I pretty much stick there to the beasties I know and like. But this is the first time in a while I've had cause to go through it comprehensively, and boy did it leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I harken back to Ed Greenwood's review of the book when it first came out, in Dragon #55. He hits the nail on the head with his observation:
Monsters such as the Al-mi’raj and the Hook Horror have strange appearances and little else; there is no depth to their listings.
Personally, I find that applicable to many of the creatures contained within. Do we really need so many different foot-high mischievous creatures populating dungeons that are there to pilfer things and otherwise pose threats of inconvenience to the player characters? Jermlaine, meazels, mites, snyads, bookas, dark creepers, etc. Sheesh! I personally find the xvarts to be an acceptable addition to the roster of humanoids (unlike Greenwood in his review), but I wholeheartedly agree with him about some of the undead or pseudo-undead creatures such as the Eye of Fear and Flame and the Adherer. They're not long-term monsters to be included in an official roster of beasts; they're the sort of one-time creatures with strange and puzzling abilities that are part of any DM's bag of tricks.

I also find that certain of the creatures are simply too restricted for use. The gambado, for example, is only found in some hole topped by a skull. That certainly limits its usefulness. Too, the berbalang; it's write-up is so specific as to seem to be be taken verbatim from a module. Again; fine as a one-shot, but hardly worthy of inclusion in the full roster of creatures.

Some are simply so sparsely written or weird-for-weird's sake as to be unusable (the flumph, gorbel, tirapheg), while others are simply "different for the sake of difference" (the frost man) or so derivative as to be almost embarrassing (the disenchanter and kamdan, for example).

Some folks like the artwork, but I confess I loathe most of the art of the Fiend Folio. Again, quoting Greenwood's original review:
But many illustrations are irritating, in that they do not closely resemble depictions of the monsters already published in the official AD&D modules. The Mezzodaemon is one such example; so is the related Nycadaemon. Some illustrations are not as visually striking or as complete as those published earlier in the Fiend Factory (such as the Sheet Phantom, Tween, and Sandman) and the modules (the Kuo-Toa, Jermlaine, and Kelpie). Why the change, if it was not markedly for the better? Other illustrations are noticeably crude, particularly those of the Mephits and the Enveloper (which at first sight earned the nickname “Pillsbury Doughboy” among gamers at GEN CON XIV).
Couldn't agree more, and I might even go so far as to say I don't like any of the clunky bulky-armor type illustrations that we saw throughout the early days of White Dwarf, the style of which were obviously used in the Folio (and I might add Warhammer). Personal taste, of course, but I find more than a little of the modern style of art in those old British illustrations. And I dinnae like it.

On the other hand, there are definitely pieces of brilliance in the book. The slaad (invented, apparently, by the now-bestselling-science-fiction-author Charles Stross; I especially recommend the Singularity Sky series and Accelerando for those who are perhaps Transhumanistically inclined)  are not only needed but well developed. I like the new giants and humanoids, and while I think the Princes of Elemental Evil may owe their creation to a mistaken interpretation of the implications of the name "Temple of Elemental Evil" (this book came out before the module, so all we knew of the Temple was contained in the module T1 The Village of Hommlet), I still think they're well done. Mephits and the grell are also favorites of mine.

So... what this means is that, basically, don't expect to see the whole range of FF creatures in my own Bestiary. I've trimmed out the clunkers (well, what I consider the clunkers, anyway) and folded the rest in and amongst the denizens of the two Monster Manuals. Nobody will agree with all my choices, of course, but hopefully my reasoning is understandable.