Saturday, June 30, 2012

Some More Observations From Our DnD Next Playtest

Today we wrapped up the third and (for the moment, at least) final session of playing the DnD Next playtest edition. My thoughts from our first session are here.

Some cool things:

Cantrips. Having the cantrips be at-will seems to be a pretty good idea. Most people focused on the cantrips magic missile or ray of frost, claiming they were too over powered to be at-will spells. I disagree. The damage inflicted by magic missile won't kill most things because of the general hit point inflation of the game. That works in favor of the lower-powered cantrips. I also don't see ray of frost, as written, as being overly powerful; the spell description only says that the target is reduced to a speed of 0, not that it has any actual impact on a creature in melee (it doesn't even put a target at a disadvantage).

I found that the cantrips also still encourage inventive uses, just like they did in 1E. For example, I used ray of frost to encase a warning gong in ice, muting its sound. I also used mage hand to great effect, opening doors and the like with little concern for any traps, and (one of my favorites, which I did today), using the mage hand to poke an enemy in the eyes with ten pounds of force. Our DM adjudicated that the target would be at a disadvantage the next round. Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck!

Advantage/Disadvantage. It's an elegant mechanic and dutifully replaces a ton of what could otherwise be fiddly bonuses and penalties. If you're deemed to have an advantage, you roll 2d20 and take the higher. If you're at a disadvantage, you roll 2d20 and take the lower. That's something that I could see porting into my current Adventures Dark and Deep game, or Labyrinth Lord, S&W, etc.

Backgrounds and Themes. This is probably going to put me more at odds with my fellow OSRians than the others. I like the idea that setting-related backgrounds can have a fairly minor mechanical effect. If there is some way to add them after the character creation process (which we apparently will see in the next iteration of the playtest rules), I would strenuously want to see it tied to in-campaign activities, rather than just something that could be picked up whenever you gain a new level.

Some not-so-cool things:

Healing. I think the healing still needs a lot of work. But, judging from the majority of comments over at the WotC message boards, I actually think the opposite of what most of the playtesters do. I think there's too much and too easily-accessible healing. I really like the idea of the "short rest" (which basically lets you recover 1 "hit die" worth of hit points per level, rolled randomly), but I think that once one is put into negative hit points, which are supposed to represent actual serious physical wounds rather than fatigue and scrapes, the consequences should be much more grave. As it stands, you could be reduced to -9 hit points, which is supposed to indicate serious trauma, and be fine and dandy after a good night's sleep (the "long rest").

Initiative. I don't like the fact that initiative is rolled once for the combat, and whatever you roll-- awesome or awful, remains your roll for the whole melee. It just doesn't make a lick of sense to me that combat remains some sort of well-choreographed ballet where everyone always acts in the same order every round. I prefer individual initiative rolled each round.

Combat rounds. Six seconds per round is too fast. It didn't work when folks tried to house rule it that way in 1E back in the 1980's, and it doesn't work now. Maybe make them 30 or 15 seconds long?

Weird prices. The price list for equipment has some really odd things in it. Healing kits are pretty much required equipment, as they are essential for the short rest to work. But they cost 50 g.p. each. For what? A few bandages and a bottle of non-magical salve? That's oddly high and smacks of being priced in order to achieve some sort of in-game balance, rather than making sense from a verisimilitude point of view. Also, consider this:
  • Acid does 1d4 h.p., costs 10 g.p.
  • Alchemist's fire does 1d4 h.p. until the target uses its action to put out the fire, costs 20 g.p.
  • Oil does an extra 5 h.p. if the target takes fire damage (as a torch used as a club on a creature that has been doused in oil), costs 1 s.p.
Is it me, or does oil seem to be incredibly under-priced for the damage it inflicts? Sure, it requires an extra action to "activate" (i.e., whacking the target with a torch after it's been hit with oil), but it does more damage than acid or one round of alchemist's fire and you can but 100 flasks of oil for the cost of a single vial of acid.

Overall

On the whole, I really had fun playing the first playtest rules. If the final game stays with the basic philosophy that they've been espousing-- a very simple set of core rules that are supplemented with a host of optional add-on rules-- I could very easily see myself playing or running a game. Such a stripped-down core rulebook wouldn't have to be much larger than Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry, and the DM (and possibly players, depending) would have the chance to turn up the complexity dial as they saw fit.

That would definitely be the way to go, from my perspective.

Friday, June 29, 2012

5th Edition Traveller Kickstarter Wrapping Up

I confess I hadn't heard about this until now, but as of this writing you have 37 hours to get in on the kickstarter campaign for Traveller 5th Edition. FTFA:
T5 has technology beyond TL 15, clones, robots, computers, artificial intelligence, QREBS (!), alien senses, Flux. It has a whole series of easy-to-use Makers: GunMaker, VehicleMaker, ArmorMaker, RobotMaker, SophontMaker, ThingMaker. It includes mapping of star systems and worlds; there's ever the MOARN caveat: Map Only As Really Necessary, or referees would spend all their time just making maps of worlds and systems. There's a rationalized section on Psionics, and more, much more.
I've gotta say, I was a big Traveller fan back in the day, and this latest edition (a 600 page hardcover book, basically going for $100) seems pretty damn nifty, even if it is a tad pricey. Definitely worth a look, but hurry, man! It's over in a day and a half.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fantasy Flight Games and Stronghold Games Announce Resolution to the "Merchant of Venus" Board Game Publishing

There's been a resolution to the dispute over who has the rights to reprint the classic game Merchant of Venus (first reported back in October). From the press release issued by Stronghold Games:
Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) and Stronghold Games (SG) are pleased to have reached a favorable resolution regarding the publishing of a new edition of the classic "Merchant of Venus" board game.

In the Fall of 2011, both SG and FFG announced separate plans to re-publish the classic "Merchant of Venus" board game. Today, FFG and SG jointly announce that FFG will proceed to publish its new edition of "Merchant of Venus," while SG's version of the game will be cancelled. SG will act as a consultant on FFG's version of the game, bringing some of SG's creative vision to the final release.

"This was a difficult and confusing situation," said Christian T. Petersen, CEO of Fantasy Flight Games. "All parties involved clearly had the best intentions in mind for the game, and none sought to cause damage to the other company. After a period of discussion and discovery, I'm thrilled that all parties now have clarity on the situation. I want to express my gratitude to WOTC for their assistance in this matter, and especially to Stephen Buonocore, the President of Stronghold Games, who has been both professional and practical in untangling this issue."

"While this was an unfortunate situation for all parties, everyone is a winner in the end," said Stephen M. Buonocore, President of Stronghold Games. "Fantasy Flight Games and Stronghold Games have forged a great bond that will last long after this event. In the face of crisis, Christian Petersen was a true leader who worked tirelessly to resolve the matter, and I am very thankful to him for that. The WOTC team was also instrumental in getting this done smoothly, and they too should be lauded. And above all, gamers worldwide are the biggest winners, since they will have this great game back in print, published by a great company, Fantasy Flight Games."

FFG is planning to release its new version of "Merchant of Venus" in Fall 2012. The new edition will feature both the classic game design by Richard Hamblen, as well as an updated game inspired by the original, designed by FFG's Rob Kouba. Stronghold Games is in discussion with Richard Hamblen with regard to other game designs, both old and new ones, which they hope to publish in 2013.
I'm pleased that there has been a resolution to the dispute, although it does seem to me that FFG pretty much "won" (although SG did get "consultation rights" as a consolation prize, but who knows just what that will entail).

(Full disclosure: I've been friends with Stephen Buonocore, one of the managing directors of Stronghold Games, for many years, but I have no special knowledge of how this issue was resolved.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Space That Might Have Been: Rombus

Considering what a space geek I am, I certainly should have known about this before today, but I never heard of this!

Back in 1964, Phil Bono of Douglas Aircraft (which later merged to become McDonnell Douglas) came up with a bold proposal for a reusable single-stage booster. The Reusable Orbital Module, Booster, and Utility Shuttle (ROMBUS) consisted of a large central core rocket surrounded by eight disposable hydrogen fuel cells (that would drop to earth by parachute and thus be themselves reusable). It would have had a payload of 990,000 lbs. (compare to the 52,600 maximum payload the Space Shuttle could bring to LEO) and have cost $195 per pound in 2010 dollars (compare to the Space Shuttle, which ended up costing around $9,000 per pound). The Rombus would have been recoverable at sea.

But the best part about the Rombus design, efficient and innovative as it was at the time, were the spin-off projects that were built around the basic design.

Ithacus was designed using the basic concept of Rombus, but as an intercontinental troop carrier capable of transporting 1,200 troops with full combat gear anywhere in the world in 90 minutes. Yes, that's right. A drop-ship design from 1964. There was also an Ithacus Jr. that would be able to transport 260 soldiers or 33.5 tons of materiel. They would be launched in pairs from nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to deploy troops and equipment. Pegasus was a civilian version of the concept.

Bono figured out that, if there was a capacity for refueling the rocket in Earth orbit, one of his Rombus ships could make it to the moon and back. That realization was the basis for Project Selena, which would have had a permanently manned lunar base with a crew of 25 by 1978, and a thousand-man base producing rocket fuel from the lunar regolith by 1984 (damnit, that's what SHOULD have been happening when I was graduating from high school!). The base itself would be constructed out of spent fuel canisters, which would be brought to the moon as shelter material rather than discarded once the hydrogen fuel was spent.

Project Deimos was similar in concept, although grander in scope; a Rombus vehicle could take a Mars Excursion Module on a 200-day journey in 1986. The expedition would remain on the surface for 20 days and then return. Later expeditions would have a much longer staying-time, owing to unmanned Rombus vehicles which would drop off supplies for future manned exploration missions.

Alas, the Rombus never got past the design stage and multiple-stage rockets won out over SSTO's (with more work the overly-optimistic estimates of capacity and cost would probably have been made more realistic), and we got the space program of Apollo, Skylab, the Space Shuttle, and the ISS. Which are spectacular achievements in and of themselves of course, but it does make me long for a manned lunar colony and men on Mars...

All images in this post credit: NASA.

Monday, June 25, 2012

WotC Reprinting 3.5 Core Rulebooks

To follow up on the 1st edition core rulebooks that WotC is reprinting next month, it is now official that the 3.5 rulebooks will also be reprinted in September.

As with the 1st edition rulebooks, these will be premium, limited edition books.

It should be noted that these were previously up on the Barnes & Noble website, and then withdrawn, almost certainly because they were inadvertently prematurely made live on the B&N site.

Given the sensibilities and strategy around the DnD Next release, this is a very interesting development. Are they trying to reach out to the hordes of 3.5 players who were, shall we say, less than pleased with 4E and left in droves to Pathfinder? I think it's quite likely. Will they succeed in winning back some of the goodwill they lost? That's a bit more problematic.

(h/t to commenter G. van der Vegt for pointing this out)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Setting Things Aside

As my regular readers may have figured out, I've always got a LOT of different pots a'boilin'. RPGs, modules, wargames, boardgames, convention games... there's always a lot of things that need to be finished around casa de grognard.

I find that this actually works out well for me. I'll develop something in my mind, maybe set out an outline or even write a couple of pages... and then drop it. It'll stay there, in the back of my mind, percolating, writhing around in my synapses, and then finally, like the spawn of some creative parasite, out it comes in one creative gush.

That's what happened with my "Temple of the Old Ones" AD&D scenario, which I'm running at this year's Dexcon. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do with it, did a map of the first level, and it just kind of sat there, staring back at me.

Until last Monday, that is. Suddenly it demanded to be let out, and the words just wouldn't stop. And I've got to tell you, it is indescribably cooler than it would have been if I had forced it a month ago, just to "get it off my plate". Now it just needs a little clean up, and it's good to go.

So don't be afraid to set things aside, and pick them up when the time is right. You may find that the quality is improved a hundredfold when you do.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

DexCon Schedule Now Posted

DexCon is consistently one of the best gaming conventions around.

The full schedule of events for this year's DexCon gaming convention in Morristown, NJ has now been posted. The convention will be held July 4-8 and is an absolute blast. If you're anywhere near the northern New Jersey area, you should consider stopping by; they have every kind of gaming you can think of, from miniatures to board games to LARPS and of course RPGs.

I'm lined up to run the following:
  • R0183: AD&D 1st Edition, "Temple of the Old Ones". Thursday 2 PM - 6 PM. People in the city of Greyhawk have always been a little strange, but eccentricity has given way to outright bizarre and in some cases violent behavior. All signs point to the weird ruins of a temple dedicated to a group of unknown, pre-human deities. Your mission is to enter the ruins, discover the secret behind this rash of odd occurrences, and hopefully put an end to it.
  • W0510: Ogre/GEV Minatures, "Operation Shockhammer". Thursday 8 PM - 12 AM. The North American Combine is launching an offensive against the PanEuropeans on a broad front. Spearheading the invasion is a force of Ogres - self-aware cybernetic tanks with enough firepower to take out a regiment single-handed - with conventional armor and GEV support. The objective: Annihilate the enemy, which is dug in in-depth.
  • R0236: AD&D 1st Edition, "Temple of the Old Ones". Friday 2 PM - 6 PM. 
  • W0884: Ogre/GEV Minatures, "Operation Shockhammer". Saturday 8 PM - 12 AM.
  • B1004: The Awful Green Things From Outer Space. Sunday 3 PM - 5 PM.
Hope to see some of you there! I'll be wearing the "SPI Died For Your Sins" button. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mike Mearls Talk About 5E on Reddit

So last Friday and Saturday, Mike Mearls did an AMA on Reddit answering questions about DnD Next (mostly...). You can find the entire thing at the link above, but here were some takeaway quotes (good, bad, and ominous from my point of view) I plucked out from the whole:
So, the key lies in establishing the limits in each area and then, most importantly, throttling way back on the flood of mechanics. We have to consider each spell, theme, or whatever with the same attention that the Magic team regards a new card.

I'd like to incorporate a core "swarm" rule into the game, an easy way for DMs to group up monsters into single attacks.

...the aim is to make combat much faster (unless you want long combats - we'll have optional rules for that).

The simple rules we've shown off so far are about as complex as we want the core.

[Our] goal isn't to make everyone happy by making a game. It's to make a range of options that any individual DM can modify and reconfigure to make the specific type of D&D they always wanted and that no other edition was able to exactly deliver.

I think that 4e fans will see more stuff they like - the tactical rules module, maneuvers for fighters, other magic systems - as we move along.

Favorite campaign setting is Greyhawk.

We're using the 4e rules as a starting point [relating to adventure creation], XP budgets for adventures that scale with the number of players and character level, along with all-in-one stat blocks and a fairly simply math system for creating monsters/NPCs.

A little over a year ago, we went back and played ever major iteration of D&D from 1974 onward. That was our starting point for creating a list of features that the game needed to support.

The idea behind XP budgets and CR is to give DMs a tool to judge lethality. What they do with it is up to the DM to build deadly fights or whatever. It doesn't mean that DMs can't do what they want.

We want to go back to 3e multiclassing, but I think we learned some very valuable things from the hybrid system in 4e.

I'm a fan of the OGL. I think it did a lot more good than harm. I wouldn't have this job without it.

The XP system is the kind of thing where I want to do a few different systems and have the DM pick one (XP for treasure, XP for killing, XP for meeting story goals, etc) to establish the tone for his or her campaign.

One of the key hang ups we have with healing is trying to find a way to make the cleric optional. So, we're definitely aiming to make it so that you can remove classes, races, or entire types of magic without screwing up the game's balance.

The healing rules are going to get a complete overhaul.

[On the best aspect of each edition:]
0e - The core concept of an RPG, a game without limits or rails that is adjudicated by another person.
1e - Character options, creating a sense of the world of D&D rather than just a dungeon.
2e - Crazy cool settings like Planescape and Spelljammer, kits and stuff that tied characters to the setting.
3e - An easy core mechanic, clear rules for combat, a game that can be modified.
4e - Core math to build stuff, much easier DM tools, tactical challenges.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Star Trek: The Motion Picture vs. The Next Generation

Persis Khambatta ("Ilia") in a screen
test for Star Trek: Phase II

Have you ever noticed how similar Star Trek The Motion Picture is to Star Trek The Next Generation? Consider...

Decker / Riker: A hotshot first officer, young, impatient, sometimes at odds with the captain. Used to have a relationship with Ilia / Troi.

Ilia / Troi: An alien who used to have a relationship with the first officer. Possessed of special powers dealing with emotions (sexual in nature for Ilia, empathic in the case of Troi).

Spock / Data: Highly logical, dealing with emotions with which he is either uncomfortable or inexperienced, and giving us the view of humanity from the outsider's point of view.

Kirk / Picard: Very experienced captain who has the complete confidence of his crew.

Music: Perhaps the most direct comparison; the theme music is the same for both.

There's actually a reason for these similarities. Back in the mid to late 1970's, Paramount was considering doing a new television series called Star Trek Phase II. At the last minute, after the enormous success of Star Wars, the would-be series was transformed into Star Trek The Motion Picture. They built sets, made costumes, wrote scripts, casted actors, and wrote a series bible. When ST:TNG came around, they recycled many of these elements again for the new show.

More on that would-be series in just a bit...

Bohemian Rhapsody

Have you seen this yet? WHY NOT?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Absolutely THE Coolest Mapping Project I've Ever Seen

If you're into maps, you have to watch this short (10 min.) video, which I'm sure many of you will find near and dear to your heart (and probably inspirational):


Jerry Gretzinger also has a blog where he details some of the progress on the map, which is created according to self-consistent (but steadily changing and growing) rules, and randomized by drawing cards from a deck to determine what gets changed or added to, and where. It's now ensconced in the blogroll to the left.

(Hat tip to Pharyngula)

Tomorrow is Free RPG Day!

Alas, there aren't any stores in my immediate vicinity, and naturally none of the three closest game stores are participating, but I fully support any endeavor that gets people into their FLGS.

Complete information (including the available swag) can be found here.

A participating store locator can be found here.

Terracotta Golem


In honor of the newly-discovered additions to China's army of terracotta warriors, I give you this denizen of the Celestial Imperium of Suhfang in western Oerik (but suitable for any campaign setting, of course).

Terracotta Golem

Number
1 (or 20d10)
Morale
n/a
Hit Dice
3d12
Armor Class
7
Move
90’/min.
Magic Resistance
D
No. of Attacks
1
Damage
Per weapon type +2
Defenses
See below
Attacks
Fear 30’ radius
Weaknesses
Blunt weapons do maximum damage
Size
M
Intelligence
0
Alignment
Neutral
Treasure Type
None
Treasure Value
n/a
Magical Treasure
None
X.P. Value
205 + 5/h.p.

General: Terracotta golems are found in western Oerth, specifically in the Celestial Imperium of Suhfang. They are classified as Greater Golems. The secret of their construction has not made its way to other lands of Oerth, although it is possible that some expatriate Suhfangese have brought the art with them. Only mages who have learned the specific art of terracotta golem construction can undertake the process. It is rumored that manuals of terracotta golem creation exist in Suhfang, but in their absence, creation of a terracotta golem requires the following:
  • 10,000 g.p. for materials
  •  Casting a limited wish spell
  • Casting a polymorph any object spell
  • Casting a geas spell
  • Casting a fear spell
Terracotta golems are able to understand commands of limited complexity and length, and will always obey the instructions of its creator. If its creator is slain, it will obey the last instructions given to it. In Suhfang, vast numbers of such golems are often used to protect the tombs of emperors, and all are explicitly instructed to protect and serve the emperor. Thus, if the dead emperor was brought back to life as an undead creature, such golems would be compelled to obey him, even though he was not their direct creator. They are sometimes created for more mundane duties, as any other golem.

Combat: Terracotta golems attack with their weapons (which can be of any type appropriate for a warrior), with an effective strength of 18 (giving them a bonus of +1 bonus “to hit” and a +2 bonus to damage). If unarmed, they do 2d6+2 h.p. of damage with their fists. All radiate an aura of fear in a 30’ radius (which functions as per the spell). They are only harmed by enchanted weapons, but if struck by a magical blunt weapon (such as a mace, club, etc.) with a +2 or greater enchantment, the weapon will inflict maximum damage upon the golem. As all golems, they are completely immune to mind-affecting magic such as sleep, charm, hypnosis, etc. Electrical, fire, and cold based attacks do them no harm.

Appearance: Terracotta golems are formed in the shape of human warriors, painted in realistic colors. Despite this, there is no mistaking them for actual living persons except at extreme range. Even those found in great numbers will all possess individualized features and will vary slightly in appearance, height, dress, skin tone, etc.

__________

This creature is hereby designated as Open Game Content under the Open Game License. Copyright © Joseph Bloch, all rights reserved.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Improved Fear

Just wanted to share one of the many illustrations that the ever-awesome Brian "Glad" Thomas is doing for the upcoming Adventures Dark and Deep™: A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore:

I love the classic look of the kobolds; small scaly dog-men, just like the Gods and Gygax intended. ;-)

The book is still on course for a July release. I just might happen to mention it again once it becomes available.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"The Party" vs. "The Cloud"

One of the things that strikes me from the accounts of the earliest days of Gary Gygax's campaign in Lake Geneva was the lack of a single group of players that would consistently come together to play. There was no "the party"*. Rather, there was a cloud of players, of which a subset would get together on any given day to play.

That's very different from the way the game was played from about 1980 onwards (perhaps a little earlier or later, depending on the locale and how thoroughly D&D had infiltrated the consciousness of the local kids). There was one Party per campaign world, and the same people would get together consistently to play. Obviously there were (and are) exceptions, but as a rule Party play became the rule. I think this had several impacts on the way the game was played.

First, it allows play to be suspended in situ, and picked up again exactly where it left off. The impact of this is enormous; no longer was it necessary for the cohors pro tempore to return to their base at the end of every game session after exploring the campaign's tentpole dungeon or some peripheral adventuring arena. It allowed for more wide-ranging play, where exploration was possible beyond "a reasonable distance" from a central city or town.

We see the difference beginning to emerge early on, with the reports of the way that the Greyhawk campaign never seemed to move too far beyond the City of Greyhawk and its attendant ruins (with exceptions, such as the well-known trips to "China", which were handled one-on-one as far as I can tell, or to places such as Stoink, which could be reached from Greyhawk with not too much effort), as compared to early settings like Judges Guild's City State campaign (aka the Wilderlands of High Fantasy), which notably didn't have any real tentpole adventuring locales.

This also impacts entire sections of advice given to fledgling DMs in the Dungeon Master's Guide. When the party is always together (or reasonably so), sections such as "Time in the Campaign", which implores the DM to take good account of time passed for each character become rather superfluous. Naturally, if the players are all part of "the party", then A's fellows will wait around for him, or, better yet, accompany him and his elfin henchman to visit that oracle.

Second, the switch from cloud to party allows the DM to focus more on a single coherent storyline. When one cannot be sure that a given character is going to be playing from one week to the next, it becomes very difficult to build sweeping story arcs around his quest to regain his throne as the prince of the elven lands, usurped by his evil cousin. You can't have a Dragonlance epic without a constant stable of characters to engage in the plot; a cloud just won't cut it.**

The reasons for the switch are manifold. Probably the most important practical consideration is that back when the game was first becoming widespread, it spread among individuals, who brought in their immediate circle of friends to play. Only the most hard-core gamers would cross-pollinate between groups (except at conventions and the like), so truly large groups of players where everybody wasn't free at the same time just didn't exist. Or, if they did exist, it was impractical for DMs of the day to run a game for a group of 20 players, even with a caller.

As noted above, there are modern-day exceptions. The famous West Marches campaign springs to mind immediately, and of course Constantcon is an ongoing ad hoc cloud, for all intents and purposes. My own current Greyhawk campaign is consciously designed to use the cloud style of organization; we've got a number of regular players, but only a maximum of 6 can show up for any given game (that's a limit I imposed, as I find it the optimal number for myself to run a game for, as the GM). But I think that the shift from the cloud to the party is one that not only impacted the individual campaigns that utilized one approach or the other, but D&D as a whole, because it encouraged the style of play, and thus the design of adventures and even entire settings, that have come to dominate the hobby and industry today.

__________
* Indeed, there wasn't even "the campaign" in the earliest days, but rather a number of different campaign worlds that players would bounce between willy-nilly, but that's somewhat beyond the scope of the point I'm making here.

** Which is not to say that there aren't plots in a cloud game, but they tend to unfold on a personal level, rather than a group level.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Film Review: Prometheus (Spoiler Free)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see Ridley Scott's Prometheus; a sorta-kinda prequel to his groundbreaking 1979 film Alien. I saw it without the 3D or Imax, and didn't feel the loss at all. The theater was packed.

Let me just say at the outset that this film was an outstanding success from my point of view. Speaking as an enormous fan of all the Alien films (even including Alien: Resurrection), Prometheus managed to do something I didn't think any film would in the series would be able to; it actually created the same emotional response in me that the original Alien film did. It was completely effective in evoking the sense of dread, anticipation, and if-only-they-knew-they-might-live-through-this angst that I felt when I saw Alien in the theater on a field trip to New York City (interestingly, since we had a few hours to kill before seeing the movie we were there to see-- the German version of Das Boot-- a friend and I took in Alien beforehand).

One piece of advice to you who might be fans of Alien; don't think of this as a "prequel". It is, and it isn't. If you go into this expecting to see face huggers and LV-426, you're going to be disappointed. It's... bigger than that. It doesn't set up Alien, it sets up the entire Alien universe. Go into this looking for broad themes, not specific artifacts.

Some reviewers thought the cast too large (large enough that the majority of the crew are just sort of extras waiting to die; the fact that this movie takes a heavy toll on the cast cannot, in any way, shape, matter, or form, be thought of as a spoiler-- it's setting up Alien, fer chrissakes...), but I thought it worked very well. Michael Fassbender (Magneto from X-Men: First Class) is characteristically brilliant as David, and he's written in such a way that the audience expectations regarding his character are well played upon.

It should go without saying that the visuals are flawless and stunning. They are all that and more. I could have done with a little less CGI and a little more mechanical effects, but I'm just old fashioned.

The music was interesting. There's a great motif that evokes a sense of exploration and wonder. However, it gets played throughout the film, but it's so short and is played so often that sometimes it really doesn't fit; people are dying, and they play the "wonder theme". On the other hand, there were some very nice nods to the musical motifs of the other films.

There were some nice dialog nods, too; not so heavy handed as, say, Star Wars, where the same line gets said three or four times across different movies, but they were definitely there ("we are LEAVING!").

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and found it a worthy addition to the Alien canon. Leave your expectations and preconceptions behind, and fans of the original should get a real kick out of this film.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

I Play DnD Next

Due to scheduling issues, my group's usual Friday Adventures Dark and Deep game was cancelled, so a few of us got together to give the new DnD Next playtest rules a spin. One of the players in my game, whom readers might recognize from the comments here as "Hamlet", took the reins as DM.

As most folks are probably already aware, the playtest package comes with a version of the 1E classic adventure "Keep on the Borderlands", specifically detailing the Caves of Chaos. It had been many years since I'd cracked open that particular adventure, so although I knew the broad outlines (a bunch of caves with different sorts of humanoids in them), the details were sufficiently fuzzy in my mind that I was able to come at the adventure somewhat new.

I won't bore you with the details of what happened, because that's almost incidental to the point of our playing, which was to test the rules themselves.

Short version: I had a lot of fun, and could very easily see myself playing this version, if later iterations give somewhat the same play experience that we had last night. Bear in mind I have never played 3.x, and have only brief experience with 4E (enough to demonstrate to myself that I didn't like it).

It's absolutely the case that some things are different, mechanically. There is a general inflation of hit points, which seemed especially noticeable when playing a first-level character (I specifically wanted to try my hand at the pre-gen elf mage). However, this is balanced by an increase in the amount of damage that characters can dish out with their standard attacks. So in that sense, there is little difference (from my anecdotal experience) in the number of hits it takes to slay a particular character. For instance, my mage went down after two hits from a bugbear. In 1E, a single hit might have done it, but I don't think the difference especially compromised the experience for me.

One might ask what the point is of such hit point inflation if it affects both sides; isn't it like pinball inflation? Well, it does give a sort of cushion for another change, which at first read sounded like a real game-breaker, but in actual play turned out to work quite well in the context of the game. At-will cantrips.

These aren't the 1E cantrips you might be thinking of. Magic missile is one, for instance; so is ray of frost. However, in a game where a hobgoblin has 11 h.p., being able to zap it with a magic missile for 1d4+1 h.p. of damage doesn't seem (after one session, anyway) to imbalance the game too much. Ray of frost doesn't do any damage; it just slows the target for a turn, which seems to be the standard for most of the cantrips I saw. They're utility spells (like mage hand), but some of them have direct applicability in combat. I used my ray of frost to keep the bugbears from sounding the alarm by striking a gong, for instance (not by freezing the bugbear, but by freezing the gong so it wouldn't sound when struck). So they, much like the 1E cantrips, can reward creative use.

One mechanic I found particularly elegant was the advantage/disadvantage system. Rather than piling on lots of modifiers for various situations, it's possible to simply say that a PC or a monster has an advantage or a disadvantage. When rolling, one rolls 2d20 rather than 1d20. If you have an advantage, you take the higher of the two rolls; if you have a disadvantage, you take the lower. I haven't run the statistics, but it really seems like a help to a DM adjudicating things on the fly. That doesn't mean there aren't modifiers as well-- there are-- but I did find it a nice mechanic.

But what I liked most of all was the feel of the game. Perhaps it was the scenario, which was a conversion of one of the recognized classics of the early 1980's, written by Gygax himself. Perhaps it was the group, which was used to old school gaming, coming out of Adventures Dark and Deep, Labyrinth Lord, etc. But my impression of the rules was that they actively contributed to that feel, and I am very much looking forward to another playtest, and seeing the next iteration of the DnD Next rules.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Frog God Games Acquires Necromancer Games

Got this announcement in my email today:
Frog God Games announced today that they are acquiring Necromancer Games, the award-winning publishing house known for Necropolis, Rappan Athuk, City of Brass, Tomb of Abysthor, Crucible of Freya, Tome of Horrors, and many other famous titles. The purchase of Necromancer Games considerably increases Frog God Games’ influence in the tabletop gaming industry. 

Frog God Games will re-animate several of Necromancer Games’ products in the future to provide its customers with revised and expanded products for a variety of tabletop editions.

Yet More Greyhawk Heraldry

I needed to take a writing break, so in my idle moments I put together some more heraldic devices from the World of Greyhawk. As before, these are done using the superb Coat of Arms Design Studio Pro by Inkwell Ideas (there's a free demo version available on their website, but it's not at all "crippleware"), with a touch-up here and there in GIMP. They come out as .png files, so they should scale great (within reason); you should click to embiggen and then save the resulting image, if you so desire. As before, it's just a hodgepodge of nations with no real theme other than I liked the designs. So without further ado, I give you...

Fief of Ahlissa

(An interesting note about this one; for some reason Ahlissa has three cannonballs in its design. While that's not all unusual in historical Medieval heraldry, it doesn't make a lick of sense in a fantasy world where black powder isn't supposed to work...)

Town of Highfolk
 Kingdom of Keoland
 Ket
Lordship of the Isles
 Onnwal
 The Paynims
 City of Rel Astra
 Reyhu (in the Bandit Kingdoms)



Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Service Guarantees Citizenship

Some corners of the Internet are all abuzz with the following picture, featuring some new costumes from the new Star Trek movie:



I don't see these as any sort of ubiquitous new uniform style (the way that the somewhat militaristic "monster maroons" replaced the spandex jumpsuits of The Motion Picture), but they could be a dress uniform or something.

But is it me, or do these just scream "Starship Troopers"? Especially the high-peaked hats and epaulettes.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Byte-Sized Middle Ages

I came across a fascinating paper by Courtney Booker (first published in 2004) which describes how modern minds have a somewhat distorted view of the Middle Ages. Rather than internalizing the pervasive religiosity which defined the Medieval era, we seem to have a view of the time as being driven by a sort of secular chivalry.

What makes it particularly apropos for my purposes is that it traces the responsibility for this popular attitude regarding the Middle Ages through Tolkien, then to Gygax and Arneson's D&D (citing heavily from Lawrence Schick's Heroic Worlds), early computer games such as "Adventure", and finally through Peter Jackson's adaptation of Lord of the Rings (which were quite current at the time the paper was originally published). Ms. Booker takes the de rigueur side-trips through James Dallas Egbert III, the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980's (even citing my favorite radio evangelist and over-the-phone exorcist, Bob Larson), and B.A.D.D. Her final conclusion is that:
...the popular conception of the Middle Ages is now largely Tolkienesque, it is a conception that will be increasingly based on Jackson’s high-definition “CGI” of Tolkien’s novel, with all the baggage—the history, possibilities, and constraints—that CGI brings with it.
It's a fascinating thesis, albeit one that will quickly become dated when the next big pseudo-Medieval fantasy epic hits the big screen to replace Jackson's films in the collective imagination, but it's a great read, if you're used to the academic style.

Thanks to Medievalists.net for pointing this out! (Currently gracing my blog roll, to the left.)

Which 'World Would You Choose?

Westworld, based on Michael Creighton's novel of the same name, and Futureworld, the not-so-great sequel, were some of my favorite films growing up. An amusement park with various themed sub-parks, populated by robots to make the experience jaw-droppingly realistic. Sort of LARPing before there was such a thing, but without rules, because it was all "really happening"; the ultimate RPGers dream. Between them, the two movies postulated several 'worlds from which guests could choose:
  • Western World (the west of the 1880's)
  • Medieval World (13th century Europe)
  • Roman World (1st century Pompeii)
  • Future World (the near future, complete with space stations, asteroid riding, skiing on Mars, etc.)
  • Spa World (recreating one's own youth)
  • Eastern World (Samurai)

The question for the peanut gallery is... which world would you choose, and why? I can't help but think that if Creighton was writing it today, there would be a Fantasy World, but he's not (unless someone clones him with DNA taken from a mosquito that once bit him), so please limit your choices to what they actually had in the films.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Wizards Allows DnDNext Playtesting Online

From their (newly revised) FAQ:
Can I run an online game via email, Skype, Google Hangout or a play-by-post forum?

Yes, you may run online games via Skype, Google Hangout or play-by-post forum provided you to do not post or upload any transcripts from your playtest, upload any playtest materials and make sure that all members of your group have signed up to playtest through the official playtest sign up process.
Well, woot! Who's looking for another player in their DnD Next playtest? I'm up for experiencing it from the other side of the screen, for once.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan 30 Years Old Today

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the U.S. release of the best of all the films in the Star Trek franchise; Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

It's such a superior film to it's predecessor that a direct comparison isn't really possible. It really relaunched the Trek franchise, and its echoes still reverberated through the other movies and television series. Everything from the plot-- direct, but with enough twists to make it unpredictable-- to the acting-- Ricardo Montalbán's over-the-top performance was only matched by Shatner's-- to the music-- the score really put James Horner on the map-- to the costumes -- you still see the "monster maroons" showing up in flashbacks in the TV series as late as Voyager-- just everything is perfect.

This was one of the highlights of 1982, when I was an impressionable 16 year old, my life stuffed full with Trek, and gaming, and science fiction in general. It was a great watershed, and a film I will still watch whenever it comes on.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Games Workshop Takes Legal Action Over 3D Printing

3D printing-- the ability to actually create three-dimensional models of things using a printer that lays down one layer of material at a time-- is about to hit our hobby big. Digital printers are finally coming into the realm of reality for consumers, price-wise, and will probably be relatively common within a decade. They're already available online, and people share their own designs on other sites as well. You'd think that would be a boon for gamers, especially those of us who are into minis.

Well, Games Workshop sees not an opportunity for the hobby, but a threat to their bottom line.

According to this article at Wired, GW sent over a C&D letter to a website that hosts 3D printing files. Not because someone had copied one or two of their figures. Because someone had created entirely new figures "in the style of the game" (in this case, Warhammer).

Now, I certainly would understand and support any company that was trying to protect their intellectual property. But neither copyright nor patent law protects style when it comes to objects. Not even trade dress, but just something that is evocative of something else. Tanks and two-legged mechs are out of bounds? Someone tell Battletech...