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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Back from Garycon VI

Which was, as usual, a blast.

I got to play chainmail for the first time in maybe ever (I honestly don't recall). It was a lot of fun, and interesting to see how the mechanics are so different today in many games from their roots. The table were a bit confusing at first, and I don't know that I ever fully grasped the turn sequences, but one of the advantages of playing in the game with several people, and having a referee running it, is that there is always someone to ask. In the end, we (the dwarves) won out over the elves. My captain's valiant run to get the simaril away from the pointy-ears allowed Durin's folk could keep the fabulous jewel. This turned out to be critical in securing the necessary victory points for our side.

I ran a session of my Mutant Future module The Gyre, and the players did well, surviving to the end and finding their way home. In retrospect, an adventure with a bit more action might have been preferable. Of course, the mutant cactus got to slap a brain lasher in the face with poison thorns, so I wouldn't say it was completely action-free.

There were many other games, including a fun one I hadn't played before called WEGS Old Skool that I enjoyed enough to pick up the books for. Michael Curtis ran one of his upcoming DCC RPG adventures for us, in which my dwarf feigned drunkenness while pounding on the kidnappers' door as he bellowed for Tito to come out and take his damned money.

So of course they released the dogs on me.

I missed out on Jim Wampler's Mutant Crawl through Stonehell because the chainmail game ran late. I did stop by to see the group of post-apocalyptic mutants start to draw from a Deck of Many Things, though.

During a six hour Castles & Crusades game run by Steve "Iron GM" Chenault, I managed to steal Dale's coffee and received a goblin patch for it.

As tedious as extended campaign stories can be ("If they weren't there, they don't care."), they do serve to remind us of those moments that keep us in this oddball hobby. It's the little moments that make you cringe or cheer or laugh out loud that are remembered: not the scores, or the XP, or what level you were, but the tales we recall around the metaphorical campfire, like old campaigners telling war stories.

This is why Garycon exists, not only to remember Gary, but to celebrate all the lives that are being well played.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

RMA: Driver Ants

Despite all the playtime other huge bug-like creatures get in D&D, I don't think I've used giant ants in a game. There have been a lot of versions of this monster, but for these purposes, I'll be looking at BX's "Driver Ants." (B34) These suckers are 6' long picnic busters of the first order. 

First off, they can turn up as a level 3 random encounter. This makes a certain measure of sense, as the colony might have tunneled into a dungeon corridor. In the wilderness, they are one of the most common random encounters! (Who knew??) Insects occur as a possibility on almost all the terrain types and driver ants have a 1:6 chance on the Insect Sub-Table of being the lucky bug (as opposed to 1:12 for all the other specific critters). Pet peeve: Should spiders and scorpions be on an "Insect" table? ;-)

Moving on, the random encounters yield either 2-8 or 2-12, depending. In the lair there are up to 24 "guards." Since these suckers are 6' long each, that's a lot of RAID. Now let's take a look at the stats:

Driver Ant (from Moldvay)

No. Enc: 2d4 (4d6)
AC: 3
HD: 4
Move: 180' (60')
Att: 1
Dmg: 2d6
Save: F2
Morale: 7/special

First off, these guys have a decent AC and hit points. The mandible bite damage is pretty respectable, too. The scary part is that one in a fight, they IGNORE ALL MORALE "even trying to cross flames to reach their opponents." So no luck scaring them off. The eat anything edible in their path, so if a PC falls to them and the party can't get him back right away, any organic equipment (or remains) will be gone in short order. 

This is my favorite bit right here. There is a 30% chance that the ants have –while digging their tunnels– been mining for gold! Yup! We got prospector ants here! Herodotus would be proud!  If they are mining ants, somewhere in the nest is 1d10 x 1,000gp worth of gold nuggets. How cool is that? That's a great incentive to send PCs down into a maze of tunnels filled with giant insects if ever I heard of one.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

H2-The Desolation of Smaug: Impressions and Semi-Review

Like many Middle Earth/JRRT fans, I saw the second installment of Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy this weekend. I saw it in "normal" (non-IMAX) 3D (more on that later). As previously, let me start my ramblings with a relatively spoiler-free* section then move on to the nitty gritty.

* By "spoiler-free" I mean about the film adaptation of the story, I assume anyone reading this blog knows the basic events of "The Hobbit" in general. If not, do not read further unless you want spoilers.

Extremely short recap/overview: When we left off at the end of the first film, Bilbo et al had escaped the orcs and wargs with help from the eagles. A good stopping point in the narrative, I thought. We pick up from there and move on to some of the more well-known (and a few of the lesser) scenes from the book. We have Mirkwood and Laketown and reach the Mountain.

Among these sections are some truly impressive scenes. I loved  the spiders. The effects/CGI was wonderfully done. It didn't follow the book 100%, but when does a movie ever?

Cooler than this.

Of course, because this is Mirkwood, the elves show up. And who is their prince? 

I'm still the prettiest!!

Yes, in case you live under a rock, Orlando reprises his role as Legolas Greenleaf, son of King Thrainduil. Mr. Bloom is a few years older now, but he was ridiculously young when he did LOTR, so it hardly shows. He carries a bit more gravitas as an actor now, which makes it a little anachronistic that his character is over half a century older in the "later" films. But that's always the issue with prequels. Bloom does a fine job, and I liked how his character was written for this. The sylvan (wood) elves are insular, nearly xenophobic, and a tad bloodthirsty. Good stuff.

The dwarves are then imprisoned, which brings me to the next bit about the movie: The caves of Thrainduil are gorgeous. I loved how they managed to capture the subterranean and arboreal feel. It redefines how elves would live in a cave to me. If ever a Simarillion  movie were made, they need to take a page from this film for Nargothrond (look it up). 

Thrainduil has a chat with some folks. I must say I am on the fence about how this character is being portrayed. He supposed to be a little edgy, I guess, but occasionally his portrayal seemed ...erratic. His essentially telling Tauriel that she's elf trailer trash compared to Pretty Prince Legolas and should keep her she-hooks off him seemed, well, bitchy. Ah well, perhaps it will fit with future appearance in the third film. 

Of course, thanks to Bilbo, the dwarves don't stay prisoners. The film moves right along to them getting freed and stuffed into barrels for a log flume ride.

Keep your hands and beards inside the ride at all times. 

Now, as the trailer shows, the nature of the ride is a bit different from the book, but it's an understandable change as it makes the sequence much more accessible (aka "exciting"). I enjoyed it, and it accomplished what it needed to plotwise, i.e. it got the dwarves further along in their quest.

Now, a brief aside here as I talk about some of the non-Thorin & Co. events in the film. As most people following these movies know, part of how Wingnut Films expects to give us 8 or so hours of screen time is by expanding certain events that are not detailed in the books, but only briefly mentioned or alluded to in the text and –in some cases– only in the LOTR appendices. Namely, Gandalf, the White Council, and Dol Guldur.

I have heard complaints about how these things weren't really in the story and are just padding, but I respectfully submit that they are fine additions to the film. They both foreshadow the events of the LOTR movies, and –as mentioned in the review of the first film (linked above)– justify certain things that seem a bit silly in the main story, i.e. Why on earth would Gandalf send such a bunch of silly buggers to antagonize a dragon? Answer? He's doing what Gandalf always does, juggle several balls at once. We get to see a little more of Radagast and Dol Guldur, so that's fun. More about this below.

Back to the main plot, the group manages to get into Laketown and resupply enough to head to the mountain. There are several changes in the plot here, some larger than others, but spoilers abound here, so it will have to wait a couple more paragraphs. Bottom line: The reach the Mountain and find the door, which is more than implied by the trailer. As is also the fact that Bilbo goes into the Mountain and sees Smaug in all his terrible glory.

This is my favorite picture of Smaug ever. Done by the Professor himself!

There's a bit more action at the mountain, and in Laketown, then we leave off just prior to Smaug attacking the town.

Without big spoilers, Smaug is beautifully executed. His appearance, animation, and of course Mr. Cumberbatch's voicing all work wonderfully. Nerd Note: I was pleased to see a "wyvern-style" four limbed version as opposed to a brontosaurus with wings.

A note on the 3D: Not worth it, IMO. It was distracting and made a lot of the scenes look weird in how they were shot. I would have preferred a "vanilla" viewing.


Okay! Let's talk a little about specifics and what I liked, and what I didn't.

Beorn: I loved that he was in the movie. I was worried he'd be cut for time. He wasn't there long, and the way the dwarves (and Bilbo) meet him is a little rushed, but I was happy he was included.

Mirkwood: Nicely done overall. Again, a bit of change from the books, mostly for pacing and time. The "oddness" of the woods and the way it played tricks on their minds was a nice way to handle things, but I was sorta looking forward to the stream of forgetful slumber. Including the butterflies and using that as a segue into the spiders worked well, too.

The spiders deserve their own special mention. I really like them. One of my favorite parts is when Bilbo puts on the Ring and discovers he can understand them. A nice touch! The spiders were big without being Shelob. They were scary and fast and nasty, too. The bit with Bilbo "fighting over the Ring" with the shelled spider was an interesting foreshadowing, but I would have preferred to see him doing the "Attercop" taunts with the Ring on and luring them off from the dwarves. I suppose having Thorin & Co. take a more active part in the fight was consistent with how the movies seem to be handling those characters.

As an aside: I was pleased to see some of the "other" dwarves getting a few more lines and scenes.

Legolas and Tauriel  were fun to watch in the fight scenes, and Evangeline Lilly is nice to watch regardless. I already mentioned I thought the tone struck with the elves' attitude was a good one.

Mmm! Ginger She-elf!

The introduction of Tauriel presents certain difficulties however. She has a large role in the film for a non-canon character, so that creates a certain amount of "ripples" in the plot. The most egregious of which is COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY!! Namely, the romantic triangle between her, Legolas, and A DWARF!


I'm sorry, but I find it ridiculous that this centuries-old elf is even remotely flattered or interested in Kili. It's so obviously shoehorned into the plot, and wrenches thing off in weird directions. I admit I am prejudiced against Aidan Turner's Kili. Not because of the casting, but for the minor but annoying reason that HE HAS NO KIND OF PROPER FACIAL HAIR AT ALL!! Silly, I know. But there it is.

Sorry, stubble-boy. Legolas is still prettier. 

This was one of my major peeves with the film on a variety of levels. It uses a non-canon character to set up an unnecessary and ultimately futile sub-plot: Legolas doesn't end up with Tauriel, as later events show us. Kili doesn't either (I sincerely hope) because he DIES in the Battle of Five Armies. So Tauriel is there (partially) to add a romantic element to the story that didn't exist before and can't have any real resoultion other than –PREDICTION AHEAD– She somehow manages to die in the BoFA trying to save Kili or Legolas or both, or having to make some tragic choice between them, or Kili and her dying tragically together. 

Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike having another elf character besides Legolas or his Pop, and I don't mind it being female, but I do mind making one up whole cloth for such a lame reason as to try and satisfy the ticket buyers who want to see some romance. 


phew! OK. Moving on now.

After the dwarves & Bilbo escape and -aheh- barrel down the river, they are pursued by orcs and the elves: namely Legolas and Tauriel. Kili is wounded by a poisoned orc arrow and the company gets away. Meeting Bard the Bowman/Smuggler/Political Rabble Rouser. 


You know what? Never mind Bard. It was a big change, but I get where PJ was going with it, it doesn't get in the way of advancing the main plot, and it sets up tension in Laketown so there's more story to see and do there. Fine.

When the dwarves are ready to leave town, they commit the biggest sin that any group of adventurers can.


The wounded Kili gets left behind and a couple other stay as well to watch over him. Why, you ask? why would PJ make such a drastic change to the story? Well the answer is quite simple: 


Orcs sneak into Laketown on Thorin's trail. But Legolas and Tauriel are following them. Action scenes ensue. Then Tauriel saves Kili from the poison with some Kingsfoil. (Which, I might point out, Bofur had gone to the trouble of finding in the first place!) Kili confesses his love for Tauriel in a fevered state and she acts all flattered and flustered and NOT AT ALL LIKE A 600 YEAR OLD ELF WARRIOR!

(I swear, I'll try to rein that in from now on)

Meanwhile, back at the mountain, more plot changes are underway. Condensing Bilbo's "visits" to Smaug was understandable. The plot twist of the Arkenstone being the real MacGuffin made a certain measure of sense as well, I guess. I really liked the detail that went into the hoard and the animating of things like coin spills, etc. I've already mentioned how much I liked Smaug.

What didn't I like at Lonely Mountain? Two things:

1) Bilbo takes off the Ring while talking to Smaug! WHAT?! The riddling talk and Smaug's playing for time while trying to find out what's afoot were part of the real fun of that scene in the book, IMO. Again, an effort to up the tension and action (Bilbo sliding around the coins stalling Smaug as he tries to grab the jewel, etc.). Also, if Smaug were aware of the Arkenstone, which he said he was, he wouldn't have left it in a pile, and he would certainly see the glowing gem skittering along with Bilbo behind. That fact seemed a bit glossed over to me.

2) The dwarves come to help Bilbo and fight with Smaug! Again, WHAT?! 

Look, Pete. I know you need some action in these films every so often, but this is HUGE. This is a radical departure from how the dwarves are presented in the book and also fairly flimsy writing. Smaug the Golden, represents an unbeatable force. Guile, trickery, and cleverness defeat him in the book, not charging around under the mountain trying to trick him. I found the entire chase and trap thing very disappointing, because it changes the story in ways it wasn't meant to go, and not in good ways or for good reasons. 

Ok, leaving the dwarves and elves for now, let's talk briefly (this is getting long) about Gandalf et al. 

His leaving the dwarves and riding off was handled very well, IMO. I liked it. It made sense, and it added some nice tension in a subtle way. I may be in the minority, but I am liking the White Council stuff. The tombs in Angmar were hella cool, with the bars bent back where the Nazgul had broken free of their crypts. 

The confrontation with the Necromancer in Dol Guldur was a nice wizardy battle. Honestly though, the gamer in me thinks A) Gandalf should have waited for Galadriel et al to arrive or, at least, B) Keep Radagast with him. What? Bird Poop-Head can't send an unladen swallow to deliver the message to Lorien? Dwarves can talk to birds in this story and Galadriel can't?? Of course, Gandalf's capture sets up the next phase of the battle at the ruins.

OK, this post has gone on long enough. Let me sum up by saying I enjoyed the movie overall. There were individual parts that I really liked, and as I think about the changes that irk me, I am reminded of another film that was second in a trilogy which provoked a similar response in me:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Grognardia: A year later.

James Maliszewski's blog Grognardia was a reading staple for OSR gamers almost from the inception the "Old School Renaissance." His reviews, observations, and play reports were always insightful and well-written. I don't know that there is or was a gaming blog that I read every entry of other than his.

A year ago today his blog ceased updating.

I confess I don't know all the reasons behind James' ceasing of new posts. The Dwimmermount Kickstarter complications and private life played a part as I understand it. While I can perfectly understand letting something like a blog lapse in the face of more important or pressing issues, and I don't blame James for not writing, I do want to go on record saying I miss his posts and also to give James a belated "Well done, sir!" for putting out such excellent material while the blog ran.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

RMA: Halfling

I know I've been gone a while, but here is something to mull over.

I've been working on a Moria-related project lately, and that got me thinking about hobbitses.

The PC races often are unusual encounters. As I have noted previously, "monster" listings and PC race descriptions are not always 100% identical. 

Halflings are probably even more unusual because, apart from the above:

A) There are probably very few DMs for which they are a go-to encounter.
B) They are rare random encounter, only appearing in two places on the BX charts ("city/inhabited" & dungeon level 1).
C) Halflings as monsters? Seriously??

The Stats (from Moldvay):
AC: 7
HD: 1-1
Move: 90' (30')
Att: 1 weapon
DMG: 1d6 or by weapon
No. App: 3-18 (5-40)
Save: H1
Morale: 7

Since halflings tend toward Lawful, they aren't likely to be marauding through the countryside. However, there is something to keep in mind here. Namely, that at low level, they are the most lethal class in the book. 

No, seriously! Look at the stats.

  • There is no penalty to their scores in BX, so that halfling can be sporting an 18 ST
  • +1 to initiative* 
  • +1 on missile fire*
  • Attacks as a fighter (best to-hits)
  • The best saves (along with dwarfs)
  • Their hiding ability
  • No weapon or armor restrictions, except for size

*NTM any DEX mods

Their only drawbacks are:
  • Slower movement than humans (90' vs. 120'), but faster than dwarfs!
  • No big/2H weapons
  • PC halflings get d6 instead of a fighter's (or dwarf's) d8 HD. Honestly, I don't know that you can actually count that as a disadvantage except against one class in particular. Also, the NPC/monster version gets a d8-1 so that's even LESS of a disadvantage. 

So these little furfoots are actually pretty tough!

As an encounter, you can be running into a dozen or so of these little guys. Considering that they are very good at ambushing, you can be in for a hail of arrows out of nowhere if you aren't careful.

Granted, their morale isn't awesome, but that makes sense. They aren't rabid fanatics. Chances are if they are fighting you, you've somehow threatened them or their home.

In their villages, you have the added wrinkle of running up against their leader (up to 7th level!) and maybe a dozen 2HD militia. Not a fun time if you've got them feeling prickly. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I Tap the Floor Ahead of Me With My 10' pole

I have recently become disenchanted with the sandbox setting. I find it is far too difficult to keep players motivated or to build up momentum for the campaign. Too often, PCs just flail around looking for the next hook to drop into their laps.

With this in mind I am pursuing a new type of adventure for me. The mega dungeon. I'm going to try running Greg Gillespie's Barrowmaze for my group. It is an excellently written dungeon crawl with many interesting features. Furthermore, I am hoping that it will give my players a little more structure without being an absolute railroad. I'm using LL/AEC and a few house rules.

I also chose a published module instead of writing my own because it would reduce the amount of prep time required on my part. I am a lazy, lazy creature.

I've added a few things of my own, like fleshing out the nearby town and giving it a name: Lychgate. I don't plan for the PCs to spends gobs of time there, but if they have a rough sense of the major NPCs and whom to talk to about what they need, I'll call it good enough.

We've had one session, and while the party didn't get very far, there were only three of them (plus a torchbearer/porter). The thief got poisoned by centipedes and that resulted in killing a week back at town while he recovered. In the end, they fought a few undead, opened a barrow, and got some treasure, so it was a good session by my reckoning.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The (new) Old Game. MAJUS: A review

When Dan Proctor of Goblinoid Games began a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year to publish a new RPG by Michael Curtis, I was –needless to say– intrigued. When Mr. Curtis explained it was to be a "Magic Noir" genre game in the vein of Harry Dresden and John Constantine, they had my money. Obviously they made their goal and the book is now in my hands.

First I'd like to say a brief word about the Kickstarter campaign itself. It was admirably run. The game was essentially written before they even started soliciting donations, which meant quicker delivery. They very specifically said up front that they weren't going to do stretch goals, which meant fulfilling those also wouldn't delay the product. There were regular updates and even a draft made available to preview. Bravo, gents!

The book itself is less than 100 pages total, laid out in a dense, but clear 3-column black & white format. This is more than enough to give you plenty of fluff and crunch. The artwork is by Mark Allen (one of my favorite  from the current crop of gaming artists). 

Now, on to the game.

Firstly, the premise. Like Call of Cthulhu and many other "modern supernatural" games, this takes place in the ostensibly "real" world. The PCs are –as the book describes– "...modern sorcerers enmeshed in a conspiracy whose roots extend back to the dawn of civilization." You aren't investigators dabbling in dark secrets, risking madness or death, you are the dark secrets. 

Mr. Curtis goes on to describe the game as one of conspiracy. The Mehen, or "The Old Game", is an eons-old power play between various factions to control the magical world that operates behind the scenes of the mundane one. The author does a wonderful job of evoking imagery and tone and sprinkling the text with terrific little details to fire the imagination, but he balances that by leaving the exact nature of the world and the Mehen to the individual GM (or "Cabal Master", as he calls it). Do the Maji fight over ancient artifacts, ley lines, or bloodlines? All or none of the above? You decide.

MAJUS uses the Pacesetter system (CHILL, TIMEMASTER, etc.) and its Action Table mechanics. I admit to not being terribly familiar with the system, but it seems fairly straightforward. The crux of the Action Table is that it allows for margins of success. In other words, if you make your roll by a lot, you have a better result than if you barely succeeded. Likewise for failures. One thing to note is that the adits (spells) often have their own set of result codes, instead of using the basic table. I found this slightly irksome, but chalked it up to my unfamiliarity with Pacesetter rules in general. I think a smart CM will place the burden of keeping those straight on the players using the adits. 

Skills and powers have base chances of success, usually derived from a simple formula based on relevant scores. For example, Stealth is derived from averaging DEX & Agility. This means a little bit of extra math at character creation, but once you've worked it out, just consult the results as you play. There is a good mix of skills and powers, allowing for a lot of individuality between characters. Remember, as written this is a game of intrigue. Even though you are playing a sorcerer, you aren't flinging fireballs at orcs. Skills and planning will matter a good deal as well. 

A note on magic. The adits are a terrific mix of powers. There are conjurations, scrying, and even some combat magic, but the idea is that using magic isn't instantaneous. It can take time to cast a spell properly. This might cause some players used to swords & sorcery to chafe a bit, but really it's a question of genre. Good CMs will make sure this is clear to the group and structure their adventures accordingly. 

In addition to "regular" magic, characters can also have "Paranormal Talents." These are more like psychic powers than spells (though obviously there is some overlap). As written, these are also more common among non-maji. Every PC starts with Aura Sight which allows them to notice whether something has preternatural properties (Aside: This reminds me of "Dimensional Sight" in Moldvay's Lords of Creation).

PCs start with a handful of adits and powers, in addition to their skills and scores. They are also assumed to have sufficient mundane resources to deal with supporting themselves. As a result, your starting PC ("Neonate") is already a force to be reckoned with compared to normal folks. At the same time, he is hardly immortal or invulnerable. I think the author strikes a good balance here. Your character is puissant, but still needs to be cautious.

The "Basic Action" section covers most of the situations you are likely to encounter in the game, including things like combat, poisons, radiation, vehicles, and disease. There are a lot of little rules sprinkled throughout this part, and at times I felt like it might be hard to keep track of them all, and a lot of page flipping might occur. Perhaps a handy reference sheet of all the situational rules might be in order? Or maybe a CM screen? :-)

The last parts of the book flesh out more of the default setting, with factions, NPCs, and some sample artifacts. There is a ton of cool ideas in here, even if you don't use them all. There is a section about "The Veiled Masters"; mysterious entities who appear to owe no allegiance and are often far more powerful than a typical majus. Their goals and motives are unknown, but as a plot device they are a useful inclusion.

What can I say in conclusion? I guess the best way to sum it all up is that while I love new settings and fluff, I am usually averse to learning yet another system of mechanics. MAJUS is something I would love to run, and I'm even willing to teach my group the Pacesetter system to do it. 

Well done, sirs!

MAJUS is currently available in electronic format at Golbinoid Games' web store. I assume non-Kickstarter print copies are forthcoming.