Thursday, March 29, 2012

Campaign Concepts: The Forest Campaign

Ever since I picked the above Woodland Adventurers boxed set from Grenadier up, like a hundred years ago, I've thought it would be fun to run an all-forest campaign. A campaign where the entire campaign setting, or at least for the scope of the campaign, was forest.

It would be interesting to see characters like Rangers and Druids, who don't normally get to show off their abilities in a dungeon or urban setting, actually test out their abilities to the fullest.

There are some good maps available on the internets you could use for such a campaign, from the traditional, like this map of Sherwood, to the fantastic, like the wonderful Southern Mirkwood map by Daniel Cruger, which leaves lots of space for you to pencil in your own names and locations.

If you don't have them in your system of choice, the Ranger, Druid, all their woodsy spells and magic items, and an extensive list of Forest monsters is available for free in the OSRIC.

Monday, March 26, 2012

It's only logical to wish him a Happy Birthday

Leonard Nimoy, who turns 81 on his birthday today!

Enjoy some Bilbo Baggins (in fact, do your co-workers a favor and play this all day long today):

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Remembering MERP: Middle Earth Roleplaying

Of all the RPGs I've played over the years, one of the most memorable was MERP, Iron Crown's Middle-Earth roleplaying system, based, of course, on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Effectively, it was a "rules-lite" version of ICE's flagship Rolemaster system. It capped out at 10th level and had a more limited selection of classes, spell lists, and critical hit charts, all admirably geared towards bringing Tolkien's world to life at the gaming table.

I played the game over a 2-month summer break with three guys I was introduced to at a local game store, one of the few I ever recall being in a shopping mall. Remembering back, it seems more like we played for years than just 8 or 9 weeks, but those of course were the summer days of youth, which we all know work on a wholly different time scale than we experience today as adults. We played enough to max out our characters at 10th level, before Fall and the impending school year split us all up, never to meet again.

In those two months, we had a pretty great campaign, set in the "Fourth Age", some years after the War of the Rings, with the emphasis on clearing up "loose ends" left by the books. We plumbed the desolate ruins of Angmar and Dol Guldur, explored the wastes of Eregion in search of lost Ring-lore, cleared Shelob's growing brood from the tunnels beneath Cirith Ungol, and even delved into the forsaken halls of Mordor on a mapping mission to pave the way for Dwarven recolonization.

Since there were only three players, the GM allowed us to roll up two characters apiece. I went into it hoping for a sort of Aragorn/Gandalf duo, but the GM had us roll our homelands randomly, and I ended up with two Black Numenoreans! These, of course, were the evil refugees of Tolkien's sunken Atlantis-like island who had given their support to Sauron (like the "Mouth of Sauron" character from the books, for example). It was an interesting challenge; I had no interest in playing villains or anti-heroes in those days, but being "forced" into the role gave the characters a lot more depth, and some interesting dilemmas and prejudices to deal with as they interacted with the other folk of Middle Earth.

Mechanically, the system was easy to run, as I remember it, which was not to be my experience later on with the game it was derived from: Rolemaster, which I found to be a confusing, arcane rule set of nearly endless complexity. Combats were quick and deadly, highly entertaining (with the crit charts frequently dealing out fun stuff like arrows through the eye and severed noses), and the spell system was engaging. Casters had a pool of spell points to draw from (and, hopefully, a couple of magic items to increase that pool of points), and lists of spells. Casters learned new Spell Lists as they advanced, and each level gained also granted more access to the spells in those lists. Most resolution rolls were made with percentile-dice, such as finding traps, sneaking, or fighting, and agile characters had a score that could be subtracted by the enemy's chance to hit. Multiple attacks were available by splitting your percentile chance to-hit in half, for instance, if you had an 80% skill in "broadsword", you could make two attacks at 40% each.

I can't for the life of me remember the name of my sorcerer, but I do remember my warrior quite well: "Gorum the Butcher", as this would also become the name of my long-running online Neverwinter Nights character. Interestingly, one of the core deities of Pathfinder's Golarion setting, the god of War in fact, is named Gorum, and I like to allow myself the conceit that this warrior of mine from the 80's finally achieved apotheosis.

Monday, March 12, 2012

John Carter - Review (with SPOILERS!)

Yeah, don't read this if you intend to see the movie shortly and don't want it spoiled.

So I took my boys to see the new John Carter movie last weekend. The boys enjoyed it; I came away with some mixed feelings.

What worked: Stanton's vision of Barsoom was a worthy one. Any scene with an airship in it was simply stunning. While not hewing particularly close to the battleship-style ships I always envisioned when reading the books, the ships in the movie had a grace and presence that made me want to own one of my own! I also really liked the Green Men; I had fears of these fellows coming off as kind of cartoonish, but they didn't at all (the baby ones maybe a little) and it was nice to see their life of wandering and occupying the dead cities of mars brought to life. Our princess Dejah Thoris was wonderful, the actress playing her basically stole every scene she was in. My favorite character was Woola, who brought a much-needed buoyancy to the film (I think the boys liked him best too).

What didn't work: Basically anything they changed from the book. It puzzles me that, for all his professed love of ERB's work, Stanton felt compelled to make the story changes he did. The first five minutes of the film immediately got my hackles raised - the movie opens on Mars, not Earth, and you get some exposition about Zodanga (now a city that walks around on spider legs) and how it is ravaging Mars, and Sab Than is introduced as Chief Bad Guy, who is given (by a trio of shape-shifting Holy Therns) a Super Ray Gun to wear on his arm and shoot down airships with. When we finally meet John Carter, you realize immediately that he is no longer the possibly-immortal veteran of countless wars, but instead a PTSD'd veteran who is being beaten into submission to fight Native Americans for the US Army. John then spends most of the rest of the movie trying desperately to get back to Earth so he can reap the financial rewards of mining a cave full of gold.

This complete change of not just Carter's story, but his whole persona, just didn't sit well with me. In the books, Carter is a chivalrous gentleman and the finest swordsman on two worlds; his driving impetus is to protect and save the Princess of Mars he falls in love with. He is smart, well-spoken, indefatigable, and virtuous. Carter's "Bad Guy", in effect, is no one villain, but the harsh environment and characters of Mars itself, and Carter will overcome them all to save the woman he loves. In the film, however, Carter is a sullen, withdrawn, beaten man who expresses such disinterest in Dejah for most of the film you wonder why he ever bothers to rescue her from marriage to Sab Than. He's not even a particularly good fighter - Dejah seems to be better at swordfighting than he is. Carter does have one big fight where he piles bodies around himself, book-style, but the film makes it clear this is because he has gone into a PTSD-fueled berserk rage while he envisions the death of his wife and child back on Earth (didn't know he had a wife and kid, did you?).

Now, I hate to even speculate on the sexual politics involved in these character changes. On the rare occasions a male character is allowed to be both strong and smart in a Hollywood film, you usually get a villain, or someone with a tortured past (ala Watchmen's Ozymandius or Batman). In this film, the John Carter of ERB's novels loses a small helping of strong, a big helping of smart, most of his honor, and all of his love of fighting. Thanks to a misunderstanding of language, the Tharks continually call Carter by the feminine name of "Virginia", which became less and less inappropriate as the film went on. Stop sulking, John!

After a couple of days pondering the changes of the film to the book, I'm left wondering how much was due to the screenwriters' feeling they could tell a better story, how much was what they felt necessary to translate the book to screen, and how much was simply necessitated by the need to be politically correct?

And, to be fair ("reader beware"), how much does my dissatisfaction with the film have to do with the film itself or with my own vague deflation at seeing one of the fictional role-models of my boyhood neutered on the big screen?

I should mention that, if you're a fan of Ancient Aliens, you will realize Stanton or one of the screenwriters is, too. Oh, and where the hell was the Atmosphere Factory?

Lest you think I hated the film, I did not; not by a longshot. I've read a few reviews claiming John Carter was "not as good as Avatar", which is not only laughable considering Avatar's source material, it is patently untrue, at least in my opinion. Its an enjoyable movie that I'll no doubt see again, possibly even in theaters. And I'd certainly see any sequels - now that John has overcome, on screen, the unfortunate revisionist backstory he was saddled with, perhaps he can get back to gleefully kicking ass with both sword and mind, and the original story lines of the subsequent books GoM and WoM, which have more clearly delineated villains, can be more closely adhered to.

We'll see.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Cholly & Flytrap

If you were ever a fan of the 80's illustrated magazine EPIC, you likely got to enjoy the post-apocalyptic adventures of Arthur Suydam's Cholly & Flytrap. This duo wandered the post-apocalyptic deserts, doing their best to survive amidst a world gone mad full of snail people, bizarre religions, genetic monstrosities, and machine guns.

The duo has enjoyed a recent resurrection via Image Comics, as well as an animated short.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Ralph McQuarrie

Would it be over-dramatic to call McQuarrie a "Visionary who defined a generation"? I don't think so.

As a matter of fact, I think next time Lucas feels like "updating" his films again, Ralph should be standing with the other "ghostly" jedi masters at the end of RotJ. What do you think?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Another peek at Pixar's "Brave"

I'm still looking forward to this.


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