Saturday, May 31, 2014

Beyond the Flanaess: Where are *you* most interested in?

One of the things that has been lurking in the back of my mind since I did my "Beyond the Flanaess" maps is that there are just so many regions crying out for attention.

Now, obviously, up until now, we've only gotten information about the Flanaess in the written sources (aside from the occasional tidbit scattered here and there, and the Sundered Empire setting for the last version of Chainmail). But if Wizards of the Coast was ever to do something new with Greyhawk, completely outside the old familiar Flanaess, what would you be most interested in outside of the boundaries of the Darlene maps?

  1. The Baklunish Basin. The semi-Arabian region northwest of the Flanaess, already somewhat described by virtue of its being on the periphery of the Flanaess; we know about Ekbir, Tusmit, Zeif, etc., and a little about what lies west of them through magazine articles, but nothing really comprehensive. Gygax once stated he wanted to do this as a supplement, and we'd get a whole slew of new Baklunish deities to add to the ones already in the books.
  2. Hepmonaland. We got some details about this region in The Scarlet Brotherhood, but honestly it could use a whole supplement in and of itself. (Or you could "just use Nyambe".)
  3. Nippon. Yeah, the name is lame, but at least the Dragon Annual Map explicitly said it wasn't the real name, just a way to communicate the fact that it was Oerth's version of Japan. Ninjas, samurai, yakuza... And I think the "Nippon Dominion" should be a fantasy Korea, conquered by the Nipponese, but with an underpinning of Korean folklore and monsters.
  4. Zindia. The names on that DA1 map were nothing if not... well... awful. But at least it communicated the gist of what was there. We got some Zindian lands named in Gygax's Sea of Death novel, and maybekindasorta some more info in a couple of the short stories, but otherwise it's wide open.
  5. The Celestial Imperium. Ahh... the China of Oerth. We know a scant few details from one of Gygax's short stories (The Five Dragon Bowl) but nothing really substantive. It's big enough that it would take three Darlene-sized maps to cover it all.
  6. Erypt. I'll bet you can't guess what Earth-analogue this is supposed to be. Mine has a Canaan-sort of land on those islands to the east.
  7. The Sundered Empire. Now we're getting into the setting of Chainmail, with its various factions fighting over the artifacts of a slain deity of war (brother to Hextor and Heironeous). It was actually a really neat setting just as a roleplaying thing (which never really got developed as such), but one could see a lot of potential with the new Battlesystem rules that are coming out with 5th Edition. 
  8. The Empire of Lynn. This is where the Black Moon Chronicles (Chroniques de la Lune Noire) campaign of François Marcela-Froideval was set, and eventually became the basis for a very successful and cool series of graphic novels. The graphic novels were not tied explicitly to Greyhawk, but there's a whole lot of circumstantial evidence that could lead to their being brought into the fold in some inventive ways.
  9. The Tharquish Empire. This is in the very southwestern corner of Oerik, and we know next to nothing about it, but there it was the original home of one of the lords of one of the domains of Ravenloft. I've seen it called Greek, Roman, British, and Babylonian. I'd love to see what it really is.
  10. Something else. There's an unnamed continent on that DA1 map, which I've identified as Gonduria, which is a complete unknown. I kinda like the idea of leaving that for DMs to flesh out, but maybe I'm in a minority. There are also some polar regions, and Fireland (a colony of the Thillronian barbarians), and possibly Frank Mentzer's Aquaria campaign as well. Maybe there's something else I'm missing?
So what would you like to see? If Wizards wanted to expand beyond the Flanaess, what should their first move be? Let me know in the comments.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Adventures as Sourcebooks

I only run published adventures very rarely out of the box. I have run a few - T1 The Village of Hommlet comes to mind - straight as published, but on the whole I look at adventures more as mini-sourcebooks about a facet of the game world (in my instance, Greyhawk, of course), rather than for their adventuring potential in and of itself. I assume this places me in the minority when it comes to consumers of D&D adventures.

This, in large part, explains my fondness for location-based adventures over plot-based adventures.

Even adventures like A1-4 (the "Slavers" series) fall into this category, although I understand they are favorites of Greyhawk fans from way back. I find that I enjoy them more for the information they contain about Highport (A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity), the humanoid stockade in the Drachensgrab Hills (A2 Secret of the Slavers Stockade), the town of Suderham (A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords / A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords), and the general idea and information about the Slave Lords, than for the specific plot that the PCs are expected to be following.

The same goes for a module like S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. When it first came out, I was infinitely more excited by the new monsters and magic items (which were eventually incorporated into Unearthed Arcana and Monster Manual II) than I was by the adventure itself. But even there, it's the background concerning Iggwilv and her conquest of Perrenland, the political situation between Perrenland, Bissel, and Ket, the NPCs included, and so forth that I find most interesting.

Even the most plot-driven adventures have information that enrich the setting even outside of the plot itself. NPCs, locations, magic items, and even the events of the plot themselves (used as background, as things that either happened in the past or are happening in the background while the PCs are in the vicinity) can be extracted from such adventures.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past review (spoiler-lite)

I saw the new X-Men: Days of Future Past film on Friday with my 13 year old daughter. We saw the regular (non-3D, non-Imax) version. Bottom line: it's a terrific movie, but not the best in the X-Men series. Definitely worth seeing in the theater.

It's very difficult to discuss this film without spoilers. The trailers give away some things: there's time travel, there are giant mutant-hunting robots, there's President Nixon. What follows shouldn't reveal any major plot-points, but might discuss a few details here and there. Hence, "spoiler-lite."

The film is based on a classic 1980 comic book story line that is followed in spirit more than in the details. In the dark and dismal future, mutants are hunted almost to extinction by giant robots called Sentinels. Through a bit of mutant legerdemain, Wolverine is sent back to 1973 to change the course of history. And then...

Well, after that it becomes a lot harder to discuss the plot without spoilers.

This is a successful movie on its face (it's currently at 91% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, which is nigh-unto unheard-of; it even beats Captain America: The Winter Soldier at 89%). It's set to have the best opening weekend of any X-Men movie, and it's gotten terrific word-of-mouth.

It's much more a sequel to X-Men First Class than it is a prequel to the other X-Men movies (more on the latter later). While the framing pieces take place in the future of Patrick Stewart's Charles Xavier and Ian McKellan's Magneto (among others), the meat of the film takes place in 1973 with James McAvoy's Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender's Magneto (among others). The plot is basically, "make sure our future doesn't happen because it sucks."

First, the obvious stuff. I'm probably going to stop saying that special effects in films look great, because the film industry pretty much seems to have that down at this point. And they look great here. When we see people sliding along ice bridges, or lifting immense things through mutant powers into the sky, it looks like it was filmed for the news. (Although there is still a special quality that practical effects still have that seems to only be apparent when you see them and compare them to CGI in your mind's eye.)

The period pieces in 1973 are flawless. The clothes, the music, the "look" of 1973, are all spot-on. I swear it looked to me like they made the 1970's "fuzzy" intentionally to mimic the way it looks in documentaries, but I know I'm wrong. It just felt so right, and felt so in line with my own memories of the period (yeah, I'm old enough to actually remember 1973, barely).

The acting was terrific. We've already seen most of these actors in these roles, and they're comfortable in them, but the standout character is without doubt Evan Peters' Quicksilver. They not only nailed a completely entertaining set piece featuring his character, but the actor captured the manic OCD-insect-on-a-hotplate personality perfectly. My only complaint is that they didn't feature more of his character. It will be very interesting to see how this compares to the version of the character in Avengers 2: The Rise of Ultron, that was teased at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Because the Quicksilver in this film is the way to do it. The linchpin of the film is Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and she does a great job of projecting the pain she's gone through into the character. Peter Dinklage as the villainous Bolivar Trask does a very good job of desperately trying to convince everyone around him that he's not a villain and that his Sentinel program is needed, at the end of the war more than ever. He seems to be having a lot of fun in the role. But seriously, Hugh Jackman needs to add some body fat. His torso looks like he has coaxial cable under his skin. Ugh.

Aside from the period pieces of music, however, I found the score somewhat... prosaic. We didn't have the stand-out Magneto theme from First Class, even when Magneto was being all "kneel before Zod" Magneto, which would have been a perfect call-back. And I found the mopey, self-pitying Xavier to wear a little thin, especially since the cause of his breakdown was almost non-existent. There's something in there relating to his telepathic powers, but they imply that that wasn't the reason that the school is in the state it's in, and that real reason is never adequately explained. The Vietnam war? Really? That's all we get? It hardly seems to rise to that level.

That said, the devices used to link the future and past segments were very well done. The theme of impending disaster in both timelines is well played, and there's some great foreshadowing from the beginning that gets played out at the end. Well done all around.

It being a time-travel movie, you can expect that some things in the future timeline are going to be changed, and I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that they are. I think they might have gone a bit too far in redoing the timeline, however. It does set up the franchise for a whole bunch of new films that take place in the new and improved X-verse, but for anyone who liked X-Men, X-Men 2, X-Men 3 (I'm told there are a few soulless husks who do), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (ditto), and The Wolverine, you might find yourself in the same position as fans of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan did after the Star Trek time travel reboot.

On the whole, I'd place this film high up in the X-verse. Probably second behind X-Men First Class, which I adored as a period piece more than anything else, which this film also captures. Whether it's better than the first X-Men is iffy; it's a larger film, and plays with the mythology in a very respectful and enjoyable way, but the first film did establish the mythology in the first place. Call it a tie. If the next film, X-Men: Apocalypse, is set in the 1980's and does a similarly wonderful job in-period, I'll be a happy camper.

There is shawarma after the credits; stay through them to see.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Local television shows

I'm old enough to remember the days when there were independent television stations. Not like the CW or the WB, but honest-to-goodness television stations that played whatever the heck they wanted (or could afford) and which actually produced their own shows. Usually in the UHF end of the spectrum that was filled with static and local programming. "Weird Al" Yankovic would go on to make a movie (and music video) about just that era of television.

My friend Doctor Theda recently brought to mind Zacherly, who was a horror movie host in New York City and Philadelphia in the 1950's and 60's. He is one of the best-known of the horror hosts, although there were a gazillion of them, as every independent station from Cleveland to Dubuque had someone dressed up as a ghoul or vampire with a cheesy accent doing humorous intro segments for monster movies; Doctor Shock in Philadelphia, Baron von Crypt in St. Louis, Sir Cecil Creape in Nashville, and a zillion others.

Sometimes there wasn't a host per se, but the station turned the Saturday afternoon horror/sci-fi movie into an event. Witness Chiller Theater from Channel 11 in New York in the 1970s:

Some of you might remember Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, who got her start as just such a horror hostess (with the most-ess) in Los Angeles, and who parleyed her natural... ahem... attributes and genuinely funny "Valley Girl Vampire" persona into relative stardom (including a feature film). Her show was syndicated in Boston in the 1980's on channel 38 when I was in college, and was sort of a "last gasp" of that sort of programming.

By the 1990's several new networks sprang up and the end of the truly independent television station was nigh.

For those of you who are fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (as I am - I remember a chain of us "circulating the tapes" back in the late 1980's and early 1990's), they got their start in exactly this sort of environment. A local television station in the ass-end of nowhere, willing to put a cheap and hopefully humorous show on the air to fill up time. There were no hour-long infomercials to generate revenue back then.

It wasn't all horror and scifi shows, though. The 1950's through the 1970's also saw the same phenomenon applied to children's shows. This is actually what Krusty the Klown on The Simpsons is supposed to be parodying (although the fact that the vast majority of the viewers of The Simpsons realize what he is supposed to be, is somewhat interesting in and of itself). Whether it was on Saturday mornings or after school on weekdays, there were hosts for cartoons and kids' shows as well, like this puppet-show one I remember watching from Philadelphia in the 70's:

And there was the Magic Garden on channel 11 from New York:

I had such a crush on Carole when I was ten years old. And they're still around, doing live shows in the New York area!

All in all, a lost era of television. Was most of it cheesy crap? Absolutely. But it had a certain naivete and earnestness that I find missing in today's ultra-corporatized and homogenized media environment. When you had a budget of $150 a show and a guitar, you learned to put more of yourself into the show, and I think it showed through.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The D&D Adventurers League

Some more news out of Wizards of the Coast today:
At the core of the new D&D Organized Play experience is the D&D Adventurers League. Essentially, we’ve given the system a name, because we wanted to emphasize the connected nature of our public play programs. For the first time, we’ll have our entire public play taking place in the same ongoing D&D campaign.
As a player, you’ll create a character for the D&D Adventurers League. You’ll be using the same rules to play at a convention, a store, or any sort of public event. There will be a D&D Adventurers League Player’s Guide available to let you know how it all comes together. Through the different programs, the D&D Adventurers League will be inviting to casual D&D players, experienced D&D players, and players looking for ways in which their characters can impact the campaign world. We want players to find the play that best fits them, and enjoy playing for years to come.
As a Dungeon Master, the D&D Adventurers League is a great way to run fun adventures that involve a minimum of prep work. We’ll find ways to reward you for your time and effort through the various programs, and there will be additional support and opportunities to showcase your skills.
As an organizer (either in-store or at conventions), you’ll find that the D&D Adventurers League is a great way to keep your players engaged. There will be fresh content available on a regular basis (mostly monthly), ensuring that there’s always something new around the corner.
There's much more at the link, including a breakdown of the three different "levels" of adventures: D&D Epics as kickoff events, D&D Encounters as core adventures, and D&D Expeditions for what they're calling "advanced play" (which seems to be a replacement for "living campaign" set-ups as they've had in the past).

I'm not a particular fan of organized play in general, beyond one-shot convention games, but it does seem good that Wizards is giving this aspect of things some thought, as I know it is central to the way a lot of folks play the game nowadays, although I have to wonder where this leaves the RPGA.

Monday, May 19, 2014

WotC Publishes 5th Edition D&D Dates, Prices, Covers

We now have official street dates, cover art, and prices for the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition books (and other goodies).

First, the boxed D&D Starter Set comes out July 15th with a MSRP of $19.99. It "includes a 64-page adventure book with everything the Dungeon Master needs to get started, a 32-page rulebook for playing characters level 1 – 5, 5 pre-generated characters, each with a character sheet and supporting reference material, and 6 dice." It's already available for pre-order on for $16.04.

Next, the Player's Handbook comes out for GenCon, August 19th, followed by the Monster Manual on September 30th, and finally the Dungeon Master's Guide on November 18th. All three books have a MSRP of $49.95.

Just to keep things in perspective, that's approximately $17.36 each in 1980 dollars, for a total buy-in of slightly over $50, compared to the 1st edition buy-in of $39. The 5th edition books also have much higher page counts, so I'm not put off by the price.

The three core rulebooks don't seem to be up on for pre-order yet, but I'm sure that shoe will drop soon. You can also pre-order the Player's Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master's Guide on Amazon now. But do consider sending the business to your FLGS, if you value having public venues that allow play.

August will also see the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure path, followed by The Rise of Tiamat in October. Miniatures supporting the multi-part mega-adventure (Tyranny of Dragons) will be available in July.

I note that they're just calling it "D&D" (without the "Next" or any edition number), which is good. Of the three core rulebook covers, my favorite is the Monster Manual.

Based on what I've seen in the public playtest documents, having played both a low-level and high-level game at conventions, and the signs and portents that have been coming out of WotC, I'm really looking forward to the new edition. I think they've done a good job in keeping the mechanics relatively light (compared to 4E or even 3.5), and they seem to be genuinely interested in courting the old-school community, as a lot of old-school sensibilities seem to be taking shape in the rules, along with some very interesting mechanics ("advantage/disadvantage" still strikes me as a terrific idea that could be ported to any edition of the game).

Really looking forward to running this come Autumn.

Friday, May 16, 2014

What am I running at OSWARP?

For those of you who are planning on running games at the first-ever OSWARP old-school gaming convention, in Morristown, NJ over the 4th of July weekend, you should get off your duff and submit your game proposals, because the deadline is looming (June 8). Here's what I will be running.

Castle of the Mad Archmage (Adventures Dark and Deep). Well, yeah. I couldn't very well not run my flagship megadungeon using my flagship rules, now could I?

Tomb of Horrors (Advanced D&D 1st Edition). I was on the fence about which classic module to run, but I finally settled on the classic convention module.

The Battle of the Aerdi Sea (Adventures Great and Glorious).  Here's the description: It's CY 578 and the drums of war can be heard across the World of Greyhawk, including its seas. A force of galleys from the eastern provinces of the Great Kingdom has been amassed to sweep the smaller forces of the Lordship of the Isles from the sea lanes. Can the the Iron League prevent the Great Kingdom from ruling the waves? This battle will be fought with 1:2400 miniatures using the forthcoming "Adventures Great and Glorious" naval combat rules.

That last one, of course, will give me a chance to show off not only a portion of the new rules I've been working on, but also my galley miniatures, which have been stuck in a drawer since I painted them. Of course, now I am sorely tempted to repaint them in the colors of Medegia, Rel Astra, the Sea Barons, Dullstrand, and the Lordship of the Isles...

So get on the stick, my friends! And whatever you do, don't forget to click the "OSWARP" button for the type of game, like I did with my first submission (blush).

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Supplement Organization - An Informal Poll

I've written before about what I perceive to be the failings of the AD&D 1E Oriental Adventures book. Specifically, although it was marketed as being broadly descriptive of "oriental" culture, it was really focused on feudal Japan, with a few bits and pieces from Yuan/Ming China thrown in.

Now, it's no secret that I've been working on a Wuxia/fantasy China supplement, but as I've been working on it, it occurred to me how the content might be integrated into a more pan-Asian product. Just for the sake of argument, let us presume that we have a rules supplement with sections covering China, Japan, and India. For each, we have races, classes, spells, magic items, monsters, and miscellany.

The question becomes, how should such a thing be organized? I see several possibilities.

  1. Group things by culture. So there would be a China section, a Japan section, and an India section. Within each, there would be a section on races, classes, monsters, etc.
  2. Group things by game section. So there would be a section on races, a section on classes, a section on monsters, etc. For each section, all of the specific items would be identified as to which culture it belongs to, but they would not otherwise be divvied up, so you'd see Shaolin-like monks, ninjas, samurai, wu, etc.
  3. Group things by game section and then by culture. Like option #2, but within each section things are grouped by culture. So within the section on classes all the Chinese classes would come first, then all the Japanese classes, then all the Indian classes, etc. Then in the section on spells there would be all of the Chinese spells, then Japanese spells, etc. And so on.
It is also possible that there are other options I've not considered.

So my question is, which organizational method would you prefer to see in such a supplement? Or, if there's some other schema I've not considered, what would it be? Please sound off in the comments.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Gotham TV series trailer

I was originally skeptical about a Smallville-like show that presented Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, etc. as kids. But I have to say this looks pretty good.