Friday, November 27, 2009

GA Wargames: Squad Leader

I've adapted good old Squad Leader/Cross of Iron for 20mm tabletop wargaming. I'm testing out the rules with the wargames club for which I am faculty adviser. With its turn-based mechanics, the rules seem quaint, but the basics are easy to explain, gameplay is fast, and so far it has been fun.

I'm particularly proud of the terrain. I'm really starting to get into the modeling aspects of the hobby. With a hot-wire styrofoam cutter, a color printer, and some scratch-built houses, hedges, and fields, this setup beats the hell out of the pold "pieces of felt" terrain we had been using.

At right, German Pioneers scramble for cover behind their one remaining halftrack after an American AT gun scrapped the second one. Can the Yanks hold off the Panzers and Panzergranadiers long enough, until their own armored and para reinforcements arrive?

German infantry, supported by two PZ III's, try to flank the American position by fording the shallow river. If they succeed, the entire Salerno bridgehead might be in jeopardy...

An American platoon considers crossing the stream to reinforce the beleaugured Yank outpost. Deciding to hold their position behind a hedge, the Americans watch forlornly as their friends are overrun.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Parlez-vous fillelfian?

Yeah, big surprise.

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: Philadelphia

Your accent is as Philadelphian as a cheesesteak! If you're not from Philadelphia, then you're from someplace near there like south Jersey, Baltimore, or Wilmington. if you've ever journeyed to some far off place where people don't know that Philly has an accent, someone may have thought you talked a little weird even though they didn't have a clue what accent it was they heard.

The Midland
The Northeast
The South
The Inland North
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ah...the Guild

OK, like, I was probably the last nerd on the planet to see "The Guild," which brings my nerd cred seriously into question (though I got serious props from one of my freshmen last week, who said "Rabuck, I think you're the only teacher on campus who can even pronounce the word "Manga").

I don't even do online gaming, and I find this show hysterical. The characters are all repulsive in their own way, yet the actors are deft enough to make us feel sympathy for them.

The recurring role played by Wil Wheaton has transformed him from the actor I most loathed to one I find intelligent, artful, and wickedly funny. His Chaos character in "The Guild" is about 180 degrees from Wesley Crusher, and Wheaton clearly has a ball playing an incarnation of pure evil. It's not just Codex who gets the serious skeevies from Wil in the following episode...

<a href="" target="_new" title="Season 3: Gag Reel - Episodes 5-8">Video: Season 3: Gag Reel - Episodes 5-8</a>

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Battle of Germantown, 3 Oct, 2009

This year, I took my son to the re-enactment of the Battle of Germantown, which takes place at Cliveden, formerly known as the Chew House. The Chew House was the site of the battle's turning point, and it provides a great backdrop for this annual commemoration. For details of the event see

This guy is one of the best interpreters I have ever seen, period. He spins a compelling tale about the role of blacks in both the British and Continental armies. He does it with humor, insight, and showmanship. Bravo!

Here come the generals, sharing a peaceful moment together before hostilities erupt

"May I have a photo, sir?"
"There's a price. You must name my unit."
"You're a Hessian grenadier."
"Correct. You may take your photograph."

This private from the 1st R.I. agreed to a photograph without a trivia challenge.

It just wouldn't be a re-enactment without highlanders, now, would it? Perhaps they would paint themselves blue if I asked?

The guy in the foreground was pretty funny. He broke ranks to come chat with us punters while his unit was stationed in reserve.

Get that gun into position!

The militia on parade.

The Pennsylvania rifles. The actual unit was positioned a few miles away, near the Rittenhouse Town mill. But we're all glad they showed up.

The Continental army makes ready to advance on the Chew House.

But the British stand ready.

Washington's army gives as good as they get.

Out boys from Pennsylvania harry the British flank.

Hold the line!

The British retreat into the Chew House.

My son, who thought the loud noises were great, was seriously worried about the welfare of the horse.

Alas, the rebels are once again stymied by the defense of the Chew House. Perhaps next year can bring a different result...

Friday, October 2, 2009

Sign of the Zombie Times

OK, I'm as bored to death with the zombie theme as anyone, but the U of Florida seems motivated more by humorlessness than by any attempt to kill a cultural leitmotif whose time is rapidly passing.

I was impressed that they had zombie-survival tips on their official website. Was there really a threat that someone might take the page seriously? Or that it would somehow impair students from acting appropriately in the event of a real emergency? Perhaps the greatest threat to free expression lies not in the political left or the right, but in the humorless conformity of the center.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

OK, I'm reading In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd. You know, the book that A Christmas Story is based on, as well as the straight-to-video sequel which I linked to months ago. Shepherd's style is purple prose at its best, so over the top that you just have to laugh at it. Few other writers make the tribulations of daily life sound so heroic, which is why I guess he still has a following ten years after his death.

Anyhow, another portion of the book was made into a film for American Playhouse some time back. It was titled The Great American Fourth of July (and Other Disasters) and it came out in 1982, a year before A Christmas Story. It starred a young Matt Dillon as a teenage Ralphie and a cast of spot-on other players (with a less doofus-y actor to play Ralph's dad).

Anyhow, some gallant soul made the video available on youtube, but--alas--the sound is about ten seconds out of synch. If anyone knows where I can get a vhs or dvd copy...PLEASE! I BEG YOU!!!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials, and athiestic moral absolutism

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers. It also contains my complaint that reading criticism of Pullman’s work spoiled my own discovery of his ideas. Be warned: if you have not read His Dark Materials to its conclusion, this review might spoil some of your own fun.

In the His Dark Materials trilogy, Philip Pullman has crafted one of the most engaging and intelligent works of fantasy in recent times. The main characters are engaging, the supporting characters have depth, and the story moves along with art and purpose. Pullman has crafted a complex world (or rather, multiverse) for his characters to inhabit, yet he reveals Lyra’s world and the cosmology surrounding it to the reader in small manageable doses, preserving a delicate balance between creating a sense of wonder and establishing an alien environment.
After finishing the first book in the trilogy (The Golden Compass, known outside the US as The Northern Lights), I checked out Pullman’s Wikipedia entries to get an overview of critical responses to the book. I was somewhat surprised to find the firestorm of controversy surrounding it. This review in particular, focusing on Pullman’s works as the “anti-Narnia,” piqued my interest, as I found little material any group (save perhaps Tartars) would find objectionable in the first volume. To be sure, most of Pullman’s anti-Christian themes fully emerge in the second two books, building to a crescendo in the second half of The Amber Spyglass. The weight of criticism colored my reading of the final two volumes, and I wish I had the chance to read them unencumbered.
I have always been amused by the angry response of religious groups to literature they find objectionable. A book is, after all, just a book. If one’s faith is so fragile as to be threatened by a work of fiction, or a movie, or a cartoon, then perhaps it is the faith that is the problem, not the material. I was a Christian before I began The Northern Lights, I remain one after finishing The Amber Spyglass. Pullman, however, have given me much to chew on. Faith without doubt is nothing but bloody certainty, and both Pullman and I can agree upon the danger of that path.
But while I was looking for an atheist manifesto in the pages of His Dark Materials, I was somewhat disappointed. True, Pullman kills God, shown as a pathetic, helpless angel, but in his book the Supreme Being is finite, having ascended to power within creation, rather than being the ultimate Creator (note 1)Those characters who know the true nature of the Authority express agnosticism about the origin of the universe. The Authority is seen as less malevolent than his angel (and usurper) Metatron, for while the former has retreated to the passivity of the watchmaker, Metatron strives to become a more interventionist deity. So perhaps there is a watchmaker who created the watchmaker. Pullman leaves room for doubt.
Pullman certainly deserves criticism for being anti-religious. He fails to create one sympathetic character in the organized religious hierarchy he establishes. Only characters who reject the faith (Mrs. Coulter, Mary Malone) earn some sort of redemption. Clerics are shown as duplicitous, murderous, and hypocritical. Father Gomez is a fanatical trained assassin who performs “preemptive penance” before he sets out to murder the main characters. The Pope stand-in tries to kill Lyra with a bomb which he sets off himself which has the unintended consequence of nearly destroying all free will in the universe. Pullman repeatedly refers to the church he creates as perpetuating a vast lie (though, ironically, much of the plot depends on the Genesis story being at least metaphorically true).
But while Pullman creates a work which is anti-religious and anti-Christian, it is not devoid of values and ideas that are more at home in a theistic universe than in an atheistic one. These include Pullman’s view of death and the afterlife, the theme of redemption, and Pullman’s faith (yes, faith) in moral absolutism.
Pullman sends the dead to a grey world that has much in common with the Homeric afterlife. Lyra’s journey there in Book III even has echoes of Odysseus’ journey in Book XI of the Odyssey. Souls mill about in unchanging tedium, taunted by harpies who reveal secrets and ugly truths to the dead. Good and bad people alike share the same fate, and the world of the dead seems to exist quite apart from the power of the Authority and his church. The dead envy the living, claiming they would prefer a moment in life to an eternity in the afterlife (again, one hears the lament of Achilles). Yet Lyra and her companions end up creating a purposeful afterlife though her actions. Death becomes a transitory state. Those dead who can truthfully confront their past lives are free to enter into a Daoist state of oneness with the universe. Those who labor under self-delusion suffer the same fate as before, made worse now by the denial of the privileged state offered to the redeemed.
At the end of The Golden Compass, both of Lyra’s parents come across as loathsome individuals. Asriel, her father, is so blindly ambitious that he commits murder, and her mother, Mrs. Coulter, engages in horrific experiments that would make Megele proud. Yet each comes to the realization that sacrifice of the self for a higher cause (For Asriel, the cause of the Republic of Heaven, for Mrs. Coulter, the love of her daughter) is worthy, and each is forgiven by the other characters for their final acts. A better example is that of Lyra herself. As a girl, Lyra’s main attribute is her ability to lie convincingly. She repeatedly uses this gift to save herself and her friends. Her deception of the bear-king Iofur Raknison earns her praise from Iorek and other sympathetic characters. Yet Lyra must learn to give up lying in order to reach the level of maturity she needs to reverse the flow of Dust. Her new ability to embrace truth renders the alethiometer, her truth-telling surrogate, useless. But for Pullman, telling the truth and a Higher Truth are really one and the same, made clear by Mary Malone’s revelation at the aperture to the world of the Dead. Past wrongs can be forgiven through good moral choices, if not by a higher Authority, than by the author and the reader.
Indeed, the greatest redemption that takes place in the book is that of the multiverse itself. The deeds of mankind have upset the balance, allowing the benevolent Dust, bestower of rationality, compassion, and all other desirable human characteristics, to seep out of the material worlds into an abyss. Will’s subtle knife creates leaks in the flow of Dust, and the bomb set off by the Magisterium threatens to extinguish its flow forever. The pure love between Will and Lyra manages to stem the tide. But Dust can be restored only if humans, through their actions, create more of it. And how does humanity generate Dust?
We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we've got to study and thing and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we'll build...' [...] 'And then what?' said her dæmon sleepily. 'Build what?' 'The Republic of Heaven,' said Lyra. Amber Spyglass, ch. 38
For much of the trilogy, our young protagonists, caught between the frightening moral poles of the Magisterium on one hand and Lord Asriel on the other, must forge their own moral code. The children cling to their decency even when all forces of the adult world try to draw them from it. Yet by the last book in the trilogy, Pullman has created a bipolar moral system, handed down from above, much like the one he takes to task. He tries to argue that good and evil are not absolutes, (note 2) yet he clearly takes sides. On one hand is order and oppression, on the other is freedom and human potential.(note 3)  Living within a liberal, progressive world, I find it hard to argue with Pullman’s values. Yet by choosing moral absolutism over relativism, he creates the potential for the same kind of tyranny he deplores when it is in the service of the hierarchical church. He denies that evil can come from rationality (witness the horrific and violent failure of Robespierre’s efforts to replace Christianity with a more ‘rational’ faith) or that wisdom and reflection could come from within (and not despite) a hierarchical church or state. My problem with Pullman is not that he tries to overthrow Narnia, it is that he ultimately fails to replace the moral pedantry of Lewis.
Before he takes a final swipe at Pullman on sanctimonious religious grounds, Peter Hitchens has this to say about the trilogy: In an age where most stories written for grown-ups are about nothing very much at all, Lewis and Pullman have addressed the great issues of this time and all time, and both deserve to be read by adults. I could not agree more. I will absolutely forbid my children from reading this work until they are mature enough to handle it. Then I will require them to read it.

And the less said about this, the better. It's clear that concern over whether or not there would be a sequel led to drastic alterations to the ending of The Golden Compass. Shame.


Note 1:  "He was an angel like ourselves—the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust in only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed." Amber Spyglass, Ch. 2.
Note 2:  “…I stopped believing there was a power of good and a power of evil that were outside us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that's an evil one, because it hurts them. People are too complicated to have simple labels.” Amber Spyglass, ch. 33
Note 3:  'I was flying high,' she explained, 'looking for a landfall, and I met an angel: a female angel. She was very strange; she was old and young together,' she went on, forgetting that that was how she herself appeared to Mary. 'Her name was Xaphania. She told me many things... She said that all the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity. She and the rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed. She gave me many examples from my world.' Amber Spyglass, ch. 36.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot

Oh, man, did this bring back memories. Here in Philadelphia, channel PHL 17 used to show Japanese imports in teh afternoon: Astroboy, Ultraman, Marine Boy, and my personal fave, Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot. It's just like I remember it...for the most part.

For starters, flying seems like the least impressive of the robot's abilities. Why not "Johnny Sokko and his Giant Robot WITH A FREAKIN' FLAMETHROWER!!!"? But maybe that's just my personal preference.

The bad guys are evil Nazi Che impersonators. How funny is that?

Anybody else get the total skeevies about the relationship between Johnny and Jerry Mano, agent of UNICORN? I mean, here's this ten year old kid, traveling alone, and he totally gets picked up by a random stranger. "It seems so quiet...but the quiet seas are dangerous these days." Sheesh! Boy, Johnny could sure use a lesson in Stranger Danger.

Favorite line (as the giant monster is attacking the ship with Johnny and Jerry aboard): "That must be the monster that's been sinking the ships!" No? Really?

Anyhow, it's nice that a fondly remembered classic like this is available on DVD. For a bargain price, no less!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Hunt for Gollum: The Movie


Every time I think that fanboy energy has been tapped dry, something like this comes along. The feature film is up an running. I'm in awe.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Review: Drow War I: The Gathering Storm

The Drow War: The Gathering Storm
Ten Questions about The Drow War: The Gathering Storm

Title: The Drow War: The Gathering Storm
Author: Adrian Bott
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing, 2005
ISBN: 1-904854-39-7

In the tangled wilderness of d20 publishers, Mongoose has had a long and distinguished track record of quality supplements, offering enhancements to the core rules, alternative campaign settings, and reference materials. With The Drow War: The Gathering Storm, Mongoose makes a departure from the areas with which they have had success in the past. DW: TGS is the first in their “complete Campaign” series, a series of linked adventures designed to take characters from first to (I kid you not) thirtieth level. In this first of a three volume series, characters should advance to tenth level and defeat a conspiracy led by a malevolent foe. Each subsequent book will see the characters through another ten levels of advancement.

1) What’s inside?

Inside the hardbound covers are 265 dense pages of material. The introduction and designer’s notes take up one page each. There are nineteen pages of background material, most of them detailing the (optional) campaign world. Only five pages of this section are absolutely essential to running the campaign, demonstrating the author’s commitment to flexibility. Almost all of the rest of the book comprises a series of ten adventures. There are three appendices at the end, detailing signature items (magic items that develop with the characters), a mass battle system (emphasizing roleplaying rather than tactical simulation) and new monsters (fourteen of them).

Some of the adventures are more liner than others. Two are really urban settings with a wide variety of options and locations for player characters to explore. There are six traditional yet creative dungeon settings. Players will have to negotiate three pitched battles. Their actions and decisions are critical to the outcome of the campaign. While this book is a lead-in to the next volume in the series, it would not feel incomplete if the campaign wrapped up after the last installment in this game.

2) Is it pretty?

Mongoose has a fairly good stable of artists at their disposal. In many past products, however, the divergent styles of these artists resulted in a chaotic look. Here, there is a more uniform look throughout the book. Almost every pen-and-ink drawing relates to something in the text and provides yet another resource for the GM. Mongoose clearly resisted the urge to recycle generic Drow art from previous products. The color cover is based on one of the few full-page ink illustrations in the interior. The black and white version is far more crisp and effective than the somewhat muddy color version (I must note that I find my suspension of disbelief challenged by the Drow woman’s footwear. A Wonderbra breastplate I can accept, but five inch stilettos in a fantasy setting? Sheesh.).

3) Is it easy to use?

This book is hardback for a reason. There is a lot here, almost all of it in an itty bitty font. Any GM who runs all ten adventures will doubtlessly put a lot of wear and tear on this baby. Since characters progress through the adventures in order, and each adventure averages about twenty pages, most pertinent information will be contained in a fairly concise section. Given the open-ended nature of some of the adventures, though, finding the precise bit of information you need at a moment’s notice might be challenging. At times, it seems scrambled together in the order that a group of adventures might need it, but if a party takes off in an unexpected direction, the GM will have to scramble. Case in point: the fifth chapter, which details the first urban setting the PCs encounter, has sub-headings that run as follows: Event, Location, Event, Information, Event, Location, Location, Location, NPCs, four more Locations, four NPC groups, Event, Six Locations, four short adventures, five plots, an Event, and an NPC group. As you can see, this book does not want for content. A full index would have been helpful, failing that, short tables of contents at the start of each adventure would have made the material more readily accessible to the GM.

4) How good is the content?

Really good. I was on chapter two when I decided to run this game. With two separate groups. The adventures are fast paced, varied in challenges and themes, and meaningful. A simple mechanic of Victory points allows players to influence the course of battles by the choices they make earlier in the game. Villains are varied and range from misunderstood tragic figures to really vile and despicable scoundrels. A sense of urgency informs the entire campaign. Once the players are under way, they will want to see the game through to the end. Gamers either love or hate the Drow. If you are one of the latter group, and you still buy this product, well, read the cover next time.

5) Is it challenging?

Given the stakes of the campaign—victory or suffer the corruption of everything you hold dear—there is little chance of the players not taking the game seriously. With that in mind, there is a wide range of challenge levels through the course of the campaign. The first adventure should present few serious difficulties to an experienced group of players. In some of the more free-form areas, though, high-level enemies lurk, and characters who behave rashly may find themselves in over their heads.

6) How flexible is the material?

The author has gone to pains to avoid including too much setting-specific material. Adapting the game to another campaign, though, would probably require no small amount of work. Bits and pieces of some scenarios could be used as adventures without the over-arching campaign quest, but the connective tissue gives most of the scenarios their meaning. Gods and religions present another problem. One region has recently converted to a monotheistic cult, which might involve themes unfamiliar in many campaign worlds. The culture of the nations the PCs visit in this stage of the game is distinctly European. Games with a non-European focus might have to make severe changes. With that in mind, remember that this supplement comprises a complete campaign. If the players remain focused on their quest, there seems little cause to use a setting other than the one provided. When I run the game, I will forgo my beloved homebrew world, forged over two decades, and just use the setting provided. I hope Adrian Bott or Mongoose provides more material and maps for the campaign world as a web supplement in the future.

Another review has pointed out that, while characters are expected to advance at least a level in each adventure, they might come up short in some of the scenarios, particularly if there are more than four player characters. This is an opportunity for the GM to graft an original encounter or scenario into the campaign. GM’s who want to focus exclusively on the main quest will have to fiddle with experience awards as the game progresses. When I run the game, I will probably just grant a level for each scenario completed, rather than hash out individual experience points.

7) Is it professional?

In my first read-through, I noticed only two typos, which, for Mongoose, is pretty good. DW: TGS looks good and it is nearly a self-contained product. One needs only the core books to play, which suggests a lot of restraint on the part of the publisher. Mongoose has at least two Drow sourcebooks out already, with another, The Tome of Drow Lore, in the pipes. It would have been easy, and profitable, to require the purchase of at least one of these books to use the Complete Campaign. Thank goodness they didn’t.

8) What’s the best thing about this product?

There is a lot here. While DW: TGS does not free a GM from all preparatory work, as the D+D introductory modules do, the Complete Campaign series does provide an excellent resource for running a big game with a truly epic feel to it. There is enough variety here to keep the players entertained for many, many hours.

9) What’s the worst thing about this product?

There is a lot here. The author’s notes at the end of the book describe the difficulty of balancing the players’ sense of free will with a continuous narrative thread as being the main problem to overcome. To that I would add the choices of what to omit and what to include. Even with a high page count and tiny print, I was left wanting more. A selection of maps added as an appendix would save a lot of page flipping. Many important NPCs are left with no physical description. Some potential foes are left unstated (case in point: the PCs encounter three bandits, of whom one is described as a non-combatant and left unstated. What if she is captured and interrogated by the PCs? What if she tries to escape?). It is easy to understand and forgive such omissions in a work of this size and magnitude. Still, I am hoping that some of the holes will be filled by future web supplements.

10) Overall, is it worth the price?

If you are a GM who values your creative license and likes widely free-flowing games, stay away. This supplement is exactly what it claims to be: a soup-to-nuts campaign, ready to run. Within that scope, players have a lot of important decisions to make, but the basic assumption is that the characters will want to see the campaign through to the end. More independent players will probably feel like they are being railroaded through some of the scenarios, despite the author’s efforts to allow for independence of action. When I run this game, I will explain to the players that they will be representing heroes expected to thwart an invasion.

That said, there is excellent value for one’s money here. Ten full-length adventures for thirty dollars is a bargain in my book. Add to that the innovation of a complete epic quest and you have a steal.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Review: Drow War II, The Dying of the Light

Here's a review of a D+D Supplement I wrote for EN World back in the day. It seems to have dropped off the site since they reorganized. So, though Edition 3.5 is a thing of the past, it's always worthwhile to find quality supplements, whatever edition they might be written for. Enjoy

Drow War II: The Dying of the Light

By Adrian Bott

What’s inside?

Two hundred fifty pages of content. This campaign module is a series of thematically linked narrative adventures, designed to take characters from tenth through twentieth level as they struggle against an insidious and implacable foe. The content is divided into ten chapters, each roughly corresponding to a level of advancement, although depending on the choices of the players, these might not be resolved in sequential order. These adventures are a sequel to Mongoose’s [i]Drow War I: The Gathering Storm[/i], also by Adrian Bott . Only players who are willing to accept a lot of backstory should venture to play this module without first completing the former adventure.

Is it pretty?

When Mongoose revealed the cover design on its website, I was less than impressed. This says more about my poor quality monitor than the artwork, for when I saw the book itself, I was surprised and impressed. The cover by Anne Stokes depicts dragon-mounted Drow attacking ships. Most of the colors are greys, blacks, and violets, giving the book a “Drow feel” to it, but there is a bright green acid bolt issuing from the dragon that does a lot to emphasize the violent action. The elegant diagonal composition is so powerful it almost pulls the viewer into the battle. Interior art varies in quality but it is engaging throughout. More to the point, it does a great job of enhancing the text and providing GM’s with a good visual representation of the unusual environments and characters from the text. The only repeated art is the cheesecake shot of the Terror. And, hey, I’m not complaining.

Is it easy to use?

There’s a lot here, and while the first few chapters are fairly linear, players will soon have a wide range of choices. The large-scale quests open up, with no obvious order in which to accomplish them. Each of these quests leads to a follow up adventure. A GM will have to keep good and careful notes about the party’s knowledge and their progress, lest he become overwhelmed in the complex web of the plot. I’m not complaining—it would have been too easy to turn a project of this nature into a linear, programmed adventure. But player freedom can sometimes mean GM headaches. Be warned. A GM will undoubtedly have to do a lot of flipping back and forth through the book, and chapter headings are not marked in the margins.

How good is the content?

OK, I was a big fan of the first module, so it’s not surprising that I like the second one as well. What was good there is good here. A few things stand out in the sequel, though. Given the magnitude of the campaign (which is still unfinished) and the fact that it is geared to fighting a single adversary, the Drow, one might be concerned that the adventures would grow stale or repetitious. Far from it. Drow characters appear in most of the adventures, but they are vastly outnumbered by many and diverse other adversaries. There are demons, undead, half-dragons, constructs, and…well, lots of baddies. ‘Nuff said. Equally impressive are the diverse environments in which adventures take place: arctic, underwater, seaborne, extra-planar, desert, and urban. It would take an inept GM indeed to make this variety stale.

I was especially impressed by the diplomatic adventure included about halfway through the book. While there is a “Council of Elrond” feel to it (C’mon, it’s hosted by the elves!), there is a lot for players to do. Diplomatic goals are clearly spelled out in the text as well as what they players will need to do in order to accomplish their goal. Their successes or failures have a direct and profound effect on the outcome of the campaign. And for the most action-oriented, there are some assassins lurking around, just to spice things up!

Which leads to a question. The first module introduced the concept of ‘Victory Points,’ a tangible way to reward players for making decisions that help them achieve their broader goals. Earn enough victory points, and the big battles are much easier. That same concept is present in the second installment, but the mechanic is gone. Instead, through diplomatic, role-playing, and adventuring efforts, players secure the aid of more troops for the final battle, which in turn will help them achieve victory. I guess the question is: why introduce a game mechanic and then ditch it when similar circumstances arrive?

How challenging is it?

Given that each adventure is geared to a specific level, the challenges are usually appropriate to the party. However, the style here tends to emphasize fewer encounters which tend to have a high CR. I get the feeling if characters get in over their heads, things can get bad very fast. And, as noted, there is no set order for the adventures that take place between 14th and 18th levels. Some of the encounters in these chapters are lethal. Characters whose repertoire consists of the frontal assault and nothing else might need help.

How flexible is it?

Drow War I was fairly flexible. A campaign world was provided, but the adventures could really be set in any fantasy world with a medieval European feel. Drow War II involves many more nations, international diplomacy, and foes from the ancient past. It is not inconceivable that a GM could retrofit the Drow War series into his campaign world, but with the sequel, it would require much more work.

Is it professional?

I found two typos in my first read-though. The book looks good, and though there is an obvious effort to cram a lot of information into a limited space it is quite readable. Quite inexcusable is the lack of many of the adventure maps. The maps of at least three keyed locations are missing from the book. Given that the two final pages are a campaign-specific character sheet (nice, but expendable), their exclusion was almost certainly an oversight rather than a sacrifice for space. Hopefully, Mongoose will release the maps as a web enhancement.

What’s the best thing about it?

The Drow War books, taken together, are a primer in how to put together large-scale epic-feeling campaign. A recurring villain, always just out of reach. A twisted and Byzantine plot. Many and varied foes. Exotic locales. A narrative that leads to an epic conclusion but offers the players meaningful choices along the way.

What’s the worst thing about it?

The missing maps mentioned above, in the days before the Web, would be a fatal flaw. Hopefully, the error can be rectified. A copy of the campaign world map from the first volume would also have been handy, given the amount of globe-trotting the players will be forced to do. Adrian Bott was good enough to e-mail a digital copy of the missing sewer map, which I have posted HERE.

A GM who prefers to have a lot of flexibility, or one who has a campaign world to which he is emotionally tied and loath to change, might see the book as being overly restrictive. But then, why the heck did he buy it?

Is it worth the price?

Oh, yeah. The cover price of $34.95 includes ten engaging adventures that average over 20 pages each. At $3.50 per adventure, that’s a pretty good value. The quality of writing is good, flavored with skill and imagination. This book might even be worth the price for a GM who has no intention of running the adventure, if only to study how to put together a meaningful epic campaign.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Five Classic D+D Modules that didn't suck

OK, I loved every minute of playing D+D back in the '80's. Who cared if the environments we were given by the gaming industry led us on another boring hack and slash adventure. We were young adolescence, and violence was fun. Interesting characters and intricate plots, if they existed, were purely due to the accident of a good GM, who could provide those things on his own.

Still, some of these old modules smell just as fresh as the day I removed the shrink-wrap.

5. Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits (David Sutherland, Gary Gygax). OK, I ranted against the six modules that led up to this one. And, like many Gygax modules, it is filled with pointless combat encounters. But those encounters almost all include twists to keep players thinking (like the demons polymorphed into white mice, or the Drow agents assulting the party from behind peepholes). This was one of the first high-level adventures published, and it was the first extra-planar adventure. It did not disappoint on either front. The challenges are challenging but not insurmountable. The Demonweb really was an alien place, with its own physical laws for players to discover. Lolth became one of the hobby's most persistent villains, not because she was tough, but because she was sinistersexycool. Much as I hate the artwork of Erol Otis, his image of her in a spiderweb bikini getting cozy with two demons fueled about half of my adolescent fantasies.

4. C2 Ghost Tower of Inverness. This tournament adventure was just as contrived as could be. Four towers, each with a portion of a key that was protected by exactly two encounters. Once the players had the key, they climbed a tower, puzzling their way through a few more encounters until they achieve the Great McGuffin. But oh, what encounters. Random though they may be, each was designed to test a team's resourcefulness. This was a great mix of light adventure, wild action, and innovative set pieces (like the room with reversed gravity).

3. A1-4 Against the Slavers. Again with the tournament modules. Perhaps because these were designed with a specific competition in mind, they tend to be written more clearly for the GM, and the pacing of the adventure seems to be be tighter. No endless garrisons of humanoids with NPC leaders who lack personality and motivation. These modules are full of interesting challenges. There are logical lapses, to be sure. For instance, why would the slavers in the first module leave their back door unguarded, so that the PCs have the chance to reach the lower levels without the alarm being raised? But such issues are forgotten once the action starts, unlike the G-series, these adventures are logically linked and build to a crescendo through plotting, not through tougher boss monsters.

2. L1 Secret of Bone Hill. Ah, yes, another cover geared to the tastes of my thirteen year old self. Never has a magic missile looked so sexy. But once one clears the cover (did you hear that, thirteen year old me? Turn the damn page!), one finds a terrific low-level setting by Len Lakofka. There is a village to explore with well-defined NPCs and an adventure site. There is a wilderness area for PCs to explore at their leisure. The challenges are tough and fluid (they change with the time of the day and they will respond to initial PC intrusions into their territory). The final dungeon has a garrison that makes sense: an alliance between a wraith and its undead minions and a wizard and his bugbear minions. There are also plausible tricks--the mirror of opposition, the chatty beholder-kin, the mixed up potions--to keep players on their toes and to prevent the ossification of yet another dungeon slog. I have run this setting in four different settings of D+D and it has yet to feel stale.

1. S2 White Plume Mountain. This one feels a little like the Ghost Tower of Inverness, in that players explore three branches of a dungeon's complex, searching for three magical weapons. It is a place that only a mad wizard could create, filled with seemingly random encounters and traps. But, oh, what a ride! This one feels like a carnival fun house, if carnival fun houses threw javelins at your head. Swinging on chains over a lake of lava! A menagerie built like an inverted ziggurat (I learned what a ziggurat was through S2)! A barrel-roll room to keep players (ahem) on their toes! The Heat Metal trap, which my player detected when they sent a summoned badger down the hall and discovered a new way to cook their food! These encounters stay with you so long, they become the moments that you bond with your friends over. And isn't that a great reason to game?

That's what I'm talkin' about...

Believe it or not, this image did not appear in any google image search I tried, and I could only find one snarky reference to it in text. Imagine, a writer was suggesting that this image was included solely for the purpose of the titillation of adolescents. Well, duh!

"The Soloist" for gaming nerds

John Desmond, a member of PAGE (Philadlephia Area Gaming Enthusiasts), sent this item about Allan Calhamer, the creator of the popular board game Diplomacy. Turns out he peaked early and never really accomplished much after that, moving on to a series of menial service jobs.

A shame, really. Diplomacy was a cornerstone of past and present game clubs. It is still an elegant paragon of good game design, spawning countless imitators and variants. Nerds like me learned a lot about social skills (like lying and skullduggery, to be sure, but they marked an improvement over what I started with: none) through the game. Who doesn't have a story about how the game brings out hard feelings in the real world?

So, Allan, for what it's worth, thanks.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Overrated "Classic" D&D Modules

Hey, sometimes the good old days aren't as peachy as we remember them. A good, close look at the adventures that lured us into gaming decades ago often don't stand up to scrutiny one we strip the gauzy film of nostalgia off of them. That's not to say that there has been no crap published in the last ten years, but, hey, let's give today's crap time to ferment, no?

10. B2 Keep on the Borderlands. This was the first published D+D module I encountered, as it was for legions of gamers entering the hobby in the early '80's. It gave my twelve-year old self what I craved, the chance to feel powerful as I cleaved my way through legions of vile humanoids. But that's all there is to it. Cave after cave stocked with generic foes. No greater plot (Gygax implies some sinister conspiracy, but it is up to the GM to flesh it out, a hallmark of his). B2 is a decent enough proving ground where new players can learn the rules. But for years I was trapped with this model of the dungeon adventure. Plot and a sense of mystery would have to come much later.

9. X1 Isle of Dread. This one gets remembered fondly because it was the first published wilderness adventure. There is a cool tip of the hat to King Kong, but in the end, the authros (Cook and Moldvay) do not exploit the setting as well as they might. The plot is as linear as it ever was in the previous dungeon adventures, and players options are far more limited than later "setting based" modules would provide.

8. EX1 Dungeonland. Gygax was clearly past his prime when he published this former joke level of Castle Greyhawk. He alludes to it in the 1e DMG as a possibility for GMs to stretch their imaginations. Instead, what we get in this published module is a hacked-up effort to turn Alice in Wonderland into an RPG setting. Dungeonland shows the limits of D+D as a storytelling engine. With its roots in wargaming, any genre that does not have violence at its core does not translate well. So we get the bells and whistles of Lewis Carroll's fantasia, but none of the whimsy that made it so distinctive. No amount of GM improvisation could save this stinker.

7. S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. This is another one by Gygax (my, doesn't he seem to appear a lot on this list?). It drew a lot of attention for merging sci-fi and fantasy conventions. Given how often that has been done so well since this module was published in 1980, this early effort is looking more than a little thin. Once you get past the new monsters and cool toys for PCs (I remember drooling over my very first Laser Rifle), this was yet another boring dungeon crawl with little rhyme or reason. Plunder was the primary motivation for continuing on. My group of adolescents grew bored with the monotony after three sessions and we had hardly penetrated the third level.

6. D- and G- series Against the Giants and Drow. Yeah, you knew these would be on the list, didn't you? Once more, Gygax informs us that there is some great sinister plot that the characters must disrupt, but for three boring hack and slash dungeon crawls, this amounts to little more than finding a note that leads to the next adventure. And if the party does not find the secret treasure room (which, given the 2 in 6 chance of finding secret doors), what then? The GM is given absolutely no guidance as to how to play important NPCs. The lairs of giants, troglodytes, and kuo-toa are treated a static, with only Wandering Monsters to suggest that creatures ever leave their assigned rooms. For instance, if players hear the noise of Nosnra's east and decide to come back in eight hours, he will still be there, partying it up with a ridiculously overpowered bunch of homeboys. The climax of the adventure is entering the vault of the drow (thank you, Gygax, for inventing a sop to throw to emo gamers everywhere), where we are told that infighting politics have left the Drow in chaos, but once again the GM must flesh out the details and figure out how to involve the PCs in the strife.

5. T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil. The first part of this adventure, The Village of Hommlet, remains one of the best introductory-level modules ever written. Despite the dungeon crawl feel of the moathouse, it all made sense, was well scaled to a low-level group of adventurers, and was near a village full of interesting and meaningful NPCs. The long awaited temple, however, left me feeling robbed. The setting was a complete mess. Once again there is a lot of implied political tension among the baddies, but there are no hooks to get the players involved. This is a common complaint of mine, and I realize that it sounds like I am pining for more programmed adventures, but I'm not. It is possible to create a complex setting, as Gygax and Mentzer did, with plenty of options for PCs to pursue, without having to resort to boxed text. What I wanted was some sense of how PCs were supposed to involve themselves in these intricate plots. What might prisoners know? Under what circumstances would the characters actually be approached by NPCs to take a more active role in the temple's power struggles. And how on earth are they ever supposed to learn of the role of Zuggtmoy, which will provide the climax to the adventure?

4. Dark Tower. Heaven knows how this stinker from Paul Jacquays warranted not one but two 3rd edition revisions. Judges Guild provided us with some fascinating wilderness settings with some exquisite maps back in the day, but their weak area was creating dungeon adventures (there are a few exceptions, like the cool Book of Treasure Maps). Dark Tower was long considered the best of the bunch. It had a plot behind it, which to be fair was explained far better than Gygax ever did with his modules. However, the setting is a hopeless mishmash of monster encounters and NPCs who seem to have no relationship to other folks who live fifty feet away. Some encounters are played for laughs (like the Giant Gay Gnome who gives out belts and the room of Mind Switch) while others are supposed to be played for bone-chilling intensity. PCs are supposed to gather artifacts to defeat Set's plot, yet they're pretty much in the dark as to what they need to do and why.

3. H1 Bloodstone Pass. I had high hopes for this one. I came to D+D from wargaming, and I read with excitement the Battlesystem rules when they came out. For the time, they were a pretty good set of medieval rules, and they made a decent effort to incorporate the fantasy element. H1, though, was a disappointment. In an effort to weave the Battlesystem rules into an adventure, we get a tired Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven retread. The players must make all the right choices in the preliminary encounters, or they will be seriously undergunned when the bad guy forces arrive. The opportunities for roleplaying are severely limited, and the setting amounted to a village and the uninteresting camp f the opposing army. Authors Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson had to contrive all sorts of reasons why our party of high-level adventurers couldn't just sneak into the camp and whack the leaders, like they have done in all of their adventuring careers up to this point.

2. WG4 Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. "WG4", I believe, was an early spelling of "WTF". Once again, Gygax gives us a garrison full of humanoids, an implied sinister plot, and a perplexing resolution to the end. While the setting is cool, this baby must have made countless GMs pull their hair out. Somehow, players were supposed to know to dress in unholy robes (yeah, let's hear the good cleric's apology for that one), light candles that are hidden in the upper levels and don't appear to be candles, than perform the right juju to open a gate to the (admittedly cool) cyst in the center of the earth. If they do not find the right written clues (and being a Gygax module, that is entirely likely), the PCs will wander around pointlessly until they get bored.

1. S1 Tomb of Horrors. Yes, Gygax makes it yet again. I have heard that, as a GM, he used to cackle maliciously whenever he killed off a PC. He must have been in stitches when he ran Tomb of Horrors. This module exists for no reason other than to kill PCs and make their players feel helpless and impotent. There must be a half-dozen instances where a character can die with no chance of saving themselves. As usual, Gygax presents challenges that can be overcome with the correct knowledge, but then he gives players no chance to acquire that knowledge. Take, for instance, the encounter with the demilich, assuming players make it that far. Gygax gives several means by which a player might hurt the undead villain, but then denies the players the means to do so. The pregenerated characters that come with the module do not have access to the spells or weaponry they will need to defeat Acerak. Unless, of course, a mage loads up on a half-dozen or so Shatter spells. You know, just in case. This module works well as a joke, if player go in knowing that they are going to be killed in nasty ways. Otherwise, it's a very very bad joke.