Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Talking About Games reviews

A few weeks ago, Abraham Zetina of the Talking About Games YouTube channel asked for some review copies of the Adventures Dark and Deep books.

I dutifully sent along the pdfs, and he's come out with a series of very nice, in-depth reviews of the three core rulebooks. He's got quite a number of other informative and interesting videos on the channel as well; I recommend checking it out.

In the meantime, here are the three reviews collected in one place for easy viewing...






Monday, July 27, 2015

Why no Nations in Gamma World?

I've been doing a little preliminary work on my massive Gamma World/Metamorphosis Alpha/Gammarauders/Gamma Knights (new element!) campaign, and something occurred to me.

Why in the Gamma World default campaign setting, does it seem like there aren't any large nations? We're centuries past the Big Oops, but it still seems like the only signs of civilization are tiny little hardscrabble villages and towns like Far-Go. There doesn't seem to be any sense of a trade network and the communications that go with trade, no religions (!!!), and no governments that extend farther than the size of a city-state.

Now, maybe this is something that's dealt with in later editions of the game (you know me, I stick with older versions of stuff whenever I can), but it seems entirely unlikely that in the centuries since the bombs fell, government hasn't spread past the tiny village stage.

This seems doubly unlikely given the fact that we have the cryptic alliances out there, supposedly spanning the world (or at least the North American continent). How are they organized? If they have agents in those hardscrabble villages, how do they communicate with one another if there aren't any trade routes?

For that matter, why aren't there any nations? Have them separated by hundreds of miles of mutant-haunted wastelands, but surely there should be cities, and land to feed the cities, and towns to collect the produce of the land, and so forth. And with that comes manufacturing, at least at some level. Sure, maybe the secrets of the Ancients have been lost, and nobody knows how to make powered armor or artificial intelligence any more, but firearms should be easy enough.

The first edition rulebook does give this question some attention:
There should be a minimal number of cities in GAMMA WORLD, as there are simply too few survivors, and there hasn't been time though, since the Shadow Years, for any great new cities to have grown. All of the old cities lie in radioactive ruin, or have been completely obliterated or swallowed up by the rising seas. What cities there are will generally be situated on a coast or river, and are near the few remaining robot farms (explained later). City populations should range between 5,000 to 50,000 humans, mutants, intelligent plants. etc.
In both the first and third editions of the game, the interval from the holocaust to the present day is 170 years or so. I submit that, population or no, that's enough time for someone to extend their influence beyond the boundaries of a city-state, especially if they have populations reaching 50,000.

These nations needn't be too large, but even a city of 50,000 humans is going to need farmland, and that farmland needs villages to support it. Assuming there aren't any handy robotic farms or computerized food factories handy.

I think adding that level to Gamma World would be a terrific way to add a whole layer of play to a campaign. Not only do you have local authorities, and agents of the cryptic alliances, but there are also (probably distant) rulers who have to be taken into account. And naturally those rulers go to war on occasion, which gives an excuse to have your bioborgs and associated popcorn assault an enemy town. It would also give those cryptic alliances a sandbox in which to pursue their schemes. I kinda like the idea, and will be incorporating it into my long-dreamed-of campaign.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

One Giant Leap

On this day in 1969, American Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. What an achievement of the American spirit and the human will. Let us follow up this great achievement and spread humanity to other worlds.


Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: Ant-Man (spoiler free)

I saw the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man today. As a rule, I don't do 3D, so I caught a showing that was plain old 2D. I promise no puns about things being small.

I have to say, after the BIG BOOM BOOM show that was Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man was something of a palette-cleanser, which is suitable for the final film in Phase II of the Marvel Master Plan (mua-ha-ha). It's a much more personal movie, with only two big fights, and it's probably the second funniest Marvel movie after Guardians of the Galaxy.

The basic plot, shown in the trailers, is that ex-con Scott Lang takes on the mantle and suit of Ant-Man, and needs to stop the villain from developing a similar technology for military purposes.

You have probably heard that this is a "heist film" and it is structured that way, but first and foremost this is a comedy. Michael Peña steals every scene he's in, as Scott's idiotic and over-eager ex-cellmate, and most of the characters in the film know that "ant-man" is a ridiculous idea. And that very self-deprecation is one of the things that makes it work. I liked the character arcs that we saw Hank Pym, his daughter, and Paxton go through, although it did seem like Scott himself was pretty much the same guy he was at the beginning of the film. Which is okay, but in a movie like this a little character growth from the titular character was sort of expected.

The film is firmly tied to the rest of the Marvel universe, moreso than many other films we've seen. There are all sorts of call-outs, both subtle and hit-you-over-the-head unsubtle, to things and characters we've seen in other films and television shows. And look for a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance by Saturday Night Live alum Garrett Morris driving a car. I don't know why, but that really made my day.

As might be expected, the effects are so seamlessly well done it's almost not worth mentioning at this point. But a special call-out to the de-aging effects used on Michael Douglas at the very beginning of the film. It's like they actually filmed it 25 years ago and just kept it in the can until they were ready to make the rest of the movie. Amazing. And the ants... the ants are filled with personality, if that can be believed. Beautiful to watch on the screen. The shrinking effects are similarly well-done, and you get a real sense of the vertigo-inducing weirdness it must induce to actually be in the ant-man suit.

On the whole, this is quite a worthy entry. It's no Avengers, but it's not meant to be. It's a very funny, very well-put-together film. Definitely better than some of the more strained sequels we've been seeing in the MCU lately, and it is well-served by the relative toned-down pyrotechnics.

Also, there are two helpings of schawarma at the end. Make sure you stay through to the very end of the credits.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Step Right Up and Spin the Wheel!

Lately, it seems that every year there's some sort of politically correct outrage coming on the heels of GenCon. This year, with GenCon slightly more than two weeks away, I thought I'd save everybody the trouble and just let the SJW's take a spin on the Wheel of Outrage to figure out what they should be offended by this year, and save some time and trouble. So put up yer nickle and you may win fame and fortune! Well, fame anyway...


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Miniatures!

Last summer and fall, I went through a big spate of painting some old-school figures; mostly Grenadiers, but there are Ral Parthas, TSRs, Citadels, Minifigs, and others in there as well. I finally got around to painting them, mostly because I'm about to start another round of painting, and wanted to get a look at what I had already done. Some are specifically Greyhawk by the paint job, most are just generic, following the description in the Monster Manual wherever possible.. I'm not a great painter by any stretch, but I'm pleased with the way most of them came out.


A bunch of Baklunis from the Sultanate of Zeif


Gnomes (presumably from the Gnarly Forest)

Kobolds

Warriors of Celene

Monks of the Scarlet Brotherhood

Goblins

I'm particularly pleased with these. Every time I'd buy some
Grenadier figures, they'd come with yet another one of the
flag-bearer skeletons. So now I have one for the Horned Society,
one for the Scarlet Brotherhood, one for Iuz, and one for the
Temple of Elemental Evil.

The whole bunch. Doesn't include pre-painted plastic figures.

Pig-faced orcs, which you've seen before.






On the whole, I'm quite happy with the lot so far. And many more to come.

Monday, July 6, 2015

New arrival: 2WW by One Small Step

One Small Step games, publishers of the redone Ares magazine (that comes with a game in every issue) just came out with "a small foot-print, moderate complexity game of the entire Second World War in Europe" called 2WW. The back of the box says solitaire suitability was high and the complexity is low/medium, so I took a gamble. It arrived today and looks terrific:


Sort of like Third Reich but playable in an evening (or, you know, playable at all). It's only got a single half-sized counter sheet, and the rules are only 14 pages. I'll try to give it a test spin in the next week or two and report back, but it looks pretty nifty straight out of the box.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy Birthday, America

No apologies. No soul-searching. We're the best nation on the planet, and I'm not ashamed of it.









Friday, July 3, 2015

Film Review: Terminator Genisys

It doesn't count as a spoiler if
they put it on the effing POSTER
I'm actually a little conflicted about whether to include spoilers in this review, since the trailers have done a pretty thorough job of revealing some of the bigger plot twists. I'll try to keep them to only what's been revealed in the official trailers.

First off, I should say that I'm a huge fan of the Terminator franchise in general, and was sorely disappointed by the third and fourth films. Although it's not a perfect film by any stretch, this latest film in the series does redeem it in many ways. I saw it without 3D or IMAX.

The basic plot is that Kyle Reese (from the first film) is sent back to 1984 to stop the original T-800 from killing Sarah Connor, but discovers almost immediately that the 1984 he's expecting no longer exists, because the timeline has already been changed by another time traveler.

To my mind, the first 45 minutes of this film, where they recreate and then completely mess with scenes from the first two films, are the best part. They do a credible job of recreating the scenes, and the CGI young Arnold Schwarzenegger is simply stunningly well done; MUCH better than the halfhearted attempt in Terminator: Salvation. (They couldn't actually reuse scenes from the earlier films because of legalities.) There don't seem to be any shouts to the wonderful Sarah Connor Chronicles television show, which is really a shame. A cameo by Summer Glau as a terminator would've been amazing. (For that matter, so would have a cameo by Bill Paxton as an older punk, now all grown up once he wasn't killed like he was in the original film.)

The later hour-plus of the film is somewhat self-contained and still quite enjoyable (I'll not reveal the specifics of what it's about, since that seems to have escaped the spoiler-happy marketing folks, other than the fact that they did the one thing left to do in the series villain-wise, and took the one man who's been the legendary hero all along, and turned that expectation on itself), but doesn't quite have the resonance of the first portion. There is some mumbo-jumbo about being able to remember things from alternate timelines, but once you just give up and say "it's just how the tech works" then you'll be a lot happier. It's time travel, which forgives many sins, and opens up all sorts of things that don't make sense until you really think about them, then they do, then you think about them some more and they're back to not making sense. Just keep telling yourself, "it's just how the tech works."

The film is long on action sequences, and they're very well done, but short on the long character-filled pauses that made the first and second films so memorable. They try to cram all of the chemistry of Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn into a single scene, and it just doesn't work. And the father-daughter thing they're going for between Schwarzenegger and Emilia Clarke (the new Sarah Connor) seems forced. Rather than have her keep talking about it, it would've worked much better if they had taken half the time to just show it.

Schwarzenegger is a treat to watch here, playing on a lot of old expectations, doing the stoic machine/father that Sarah wanted for John in the second movie to perfection, recalling lots of old lines and scenes and obviously having a ball with it. Emilia Clarke seems to have been cast mostly because of her resemblance to Linda Hamilton (there are a few scenes where the resemblance is uncanny). J.K. Simmons is great as a cop whose life is completely overwhelmed by a chance encounter with the whole notion of time-traveling killer robots, and Jai Courtney (the new Kyle Reese) seems to have been cast because... well, I'm not really sure why. He sucked. Comparisons with Michael Biehn are going to be inevitable, and he can't hold a candle to the original.

On the whole this is a worthy entry in the Terminator franchise. It's certainly not as good as the first two films, but it's easily better than the last two. I'll give it three stars out of five, right in the middle.

There is a helping of schawarma in the middle of the credits. Some people seem to think it was difficult to understand, but it made perfect sense to me, in context. Make sure to stay for it.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: Empire of Imagination

Nice homage to the cover of
"Unearthed Arcana"
Michael Witwer's Empire of Imagination (coming October 6, but available for pre-order at Amazon) is a biography of Gary Gygax, an individual who will need no introduction to my readers.

Witwer's book covers similar ground to other books published over the last couple of years, such as Playing at the World, Designers & Dragons, and Of Dice and Men, but does so with a particular emphasis on Gygax himself, including a lot of non-game-related information not covered in most other works. That said, there's not much relating directly to D&D or TSR that you won't find in those other books.

Witwer's style is light and easy to read. I found his accounts of events compelling, and actively looked forward to picking the book up again each time.

Although the sub-title of the book, "Gary Gygax and the birth of Dungeons & Dragons" does telegraph that the period up to the mid-1980's will receive the most coverage, I found this to be the greatest deficiency in the book. What we have is not a biography of Gary Gygax, but only the first half of one. Everything past 1987 or so is mentioned almost as an afterthought, covering thirty years in thirty pages. Suddenly Gygax has a second wife, of whom we have not previously heard. His later work with other companies such as Troll Lord Games is given but a single sentence, and no word is given at all to his rapprochement with the publishers of D&D (by that time Wizards of the Coast) and his renewed series of articles in Dragon magazine.

I think a more balanced look at the whole of Gygax's life and career would have been both more interesting and valuable than yet another look at the intricate details of 1970-75. It should be taken as a compliment that the only major deficiency I find in Empire of Imagination is that it's not long enough. I could easily have read another hundred pages that went into an equal amount of detail on the post-TSR years of Gygax's life.

Note: I requested, and was sent, an advance review copy of this book by the publisher.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

OSWARP 2015 Events

The schedule of events for this year's DexCon convention was just posted, and with it the OSWARP "Old School con-within-a-con" events. Here they are, broken out for your convenience:

  • THU 8 PM - 12 PM: R0305: Adventures Dark and Deep; "DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor"
  • FRI 8 PM - 12 PM: R0374: AD&D 1st Edition; "The Ghost Tower of Inverness"
  • FRI 8 PM - 12 PM: R0375: Adventures Dark and Deep; "DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor" 
  • SAT 9 AM - 1 PM: R0399: AD&D 2nd Edition; "I6: Ravenloft"
  • SAT 9 AM - 1 PM: R0402: Empire of the Petal Throne; "A Taste of the Past" (An original scenario for the original, 1975 Empire of the Petal Throne rules, in honor of the game's 40th anniversary)
  • SAT 8 PM - 12 PM: W1089: Ogre Miniatures; "Breakthrough"
  • SAT 8 PM - 12 PM: R0442: Adventures Dark and Deep; "DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor"
  • SUN 10 AM - 2 PM: R0459: Adventures Dark and Deep; "DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor"
Not a bad showing, but I would have liked to see a little more variety. Still, it's good to see some of the old games represented. Unfortunately due to a variety of circumstances I'm only able to run two games this year, Inverness and Ogre Miniatures are mine. Yes, that's right, someone else is running Adventures Dark and Deep! Too cool!

The convention will be held in conjunction with DexCon, the premier East Coast gaming convention, on July 4th weekend in Morristown, NJ. Full details, including registration info, can be found here. Unfortunately the convention hotel is sold out, but there are plenty of other hotels in Morristown.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Let's Read: Greyhawk Adventures (Part 8)

Slowly but surely we make our way inexorably through this book! This time, I'll be talking about a particularly juicy section; Magical Spells.

Here we have more than a hundred(!) new spells, purportedly from the spellbooks of the most famous magic-users in the Flanaess; Bigby, Drawmij, Mordenkainen, Nystul, Otiluke, Otto, Rary, and Tenser. We also learn of the titles of too more that were "left off as too esoteric for even the most curious spell crafter"; Drawmij's Instant Stripping and Otto's Gelatinous Cube Transformation to Edible Gel. Which I absolutely love and find both whimsical and evocative.

They span in spell level from 1st to 7th; "there are no 8th and 9th level spells because these were too well protected for even this powerful scribe to acquire." Nice touch.

I find the spells listed here to be somewhat uneven. Some are obviously just extensions of other named "theme" spells from the Players Handbook. Many of Bigby's spells are hand-related, such as Bigby's Feeling Fingers; Drawmij's specialty seems to be teleportation (Drawmij's Instant Exit); many of Nystul's deal with light, such as Nystul's Flash; Otilike has a whole line of "sphere" themed spells (including Otiluke's Steaming Sphere); Otto is more musical and dance related, with spells like Otto's Sure-Footed Shuffle; Rary is mind-based (Rary's Mind Scan); while Tenser's are based around melee and physical combat (Tenser's Primal Fury).

On the one hand, I know why these were chosen, based on the existing named spells in the Player's Handbook, and it's convenient for each magic-user to have some identifiable "hook" or theme that can be used to more easily differentiate him from the pack. On the other hand, they do seem rather derivative and uninspired. One nice touch is that Tenser was known for charging into combat, so his themed spells bother me the least.

Personally, I find the non-themed spells to be much more inventive and to do a better job of fleshing out the characters of their creators. Spells like Bigby's Bookworm Bane (which still conjures a disembodied hand, of course), Drawmij's Scent Mask, Mordenkainen's Protection from Slime, Nystul's Grue Conjuration (which is the only means I can think of off the top of my head than an elemental grue can be summoned to the material plane), and so forth. I do find the insistence on putting the magic-user's name at the beginning of each and every one of his spells rather tedious, though. I wish Mr. Ward had followed Ed Greenwood's lead in his "Pages from the Mages" articles in Dragon, and just given the spells regular names while making their origin clear.

For the most part, the spells listed here seem like riffs on the named specialty spells in the Players Handbook. There are different specialties, and different gradations of power, but ultimately they seem rather derivative, with some notable exceptions. Still, they are quite useful and would certainly be most welcome as treasure (on scrolls, perhaps) or rewards in a Greyhawk campaign, not to mention an excuse to get the PCs involved with the named mages themselves.

I still think that I would have more fun with Drawmij's Instant Stripping and Otto's Gelatinous Cube Transformation to Edible Gel, though.

Up next: magic items!