Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Black Company is Excellent Military Fantasy

The Black Company by Glen Cook
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Glen Cook's first entry in the Black Company series is an interesting combination of originality and trope that bridges the gap between epic fantasy and sword and sorcery. This volume tells the tale of the Black Company from the point of view of Croaker, the Company's surgeon/medic, as they begin their employment under a mysterious figure known as The Lady. While high magic abounds in the world of The Black Company, and happens in the vicinity of the Company, it is not the focus of the story. The main narrative focuses on the skirmishes, battles, and scouting and assassination missions that the Company engages in during a revolution against The Lady.

Descriptions of events are sparse and most character names are nicknames like The Lady, Croaker, One-Eye, Raven, The Captain, The Limper, Darling, Soulcatcher, etc. It is rare that an actual name is used, even in the case of locations in the book. This gives the reader a feeling that they are reading a translation of a text written in another language where the author has translated names into the new language, or a feeling of narrative distance that one gets when reading a history rather than a story.

Cook borrows strongly from existing fantasy literature, both high and low. The Lady can manifest "The Eye" in a manner that echoes Sauron in Tolkien. The grim and gritty battles echo the writings of Robert Howard and the first assassination mission echoes a Fritz Leiber tale of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. While the narrative tapestry borrows from a myriad of earlier literature, with Dark Lords and Prophesied Saviors and all, the end result is highly original. It's a fun read, and Croaker's voice comes through as experienced but not jaded. Some of the best details are focused on the "hurry up and wait" culture of the military, details that add greatly to the realism of the book.

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Back in the d20 era, Green Ronin published an excellent sourcebook for the series. I'd love to see an updated version for the AGE system...which I think might fit the setting better than d20 did. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

From a Gaming Perspective the MY LITTLE PONY MOVIE Adds a Lot of Material

The My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic franchise is moving from the small screen to the big screen on October 6th and as a gamer dad I could not be more excited. A quick glimpse at the new film poster the production released for #SDCC gives one hint why. The Mane Six and Spike don't have aquatic features just because it's cute, they have them because the new movie is adding new mythological creatures to the Pony-verse. A look at the film's trailer gives even more context to the additions. Give it a quick view.

Earlier this year, River Horse publishing published an excellent role playing game based on the My Little Pony IP. In that game, players can make characters based on the three types of ponies that are featured in the series: Earth Ponies, Pegasi, and Unicorns. The Alicorn, a combination of Pegasus and Unicorn, is mentioned in the role playing game, but is not allowable in play. Just based on the trailer of the film, I see two things that I want to bring into my roleplaying games. The first is a new kind of pony, called "Sea Ponies," are featured in the book Under the Sparkling Sea. The second is the existence of a Unicorn with a broken horn, which inspires the question of "what happens when a Unicorn breaks its horn?"

Given my daughters' love of the Percy Jackson books, I'm particularly excited about Sea Ponies. Of all the characters and creatures of the Percy Jackson-verse, the hippocampus Rainbow was their absolute favorite. Now hippocampoi are cemented as a type of pony. If River Horse, who given the company's name should, doesn't publish guidelines and traits for hippocampoi in the next couple of weeks, I'll be posting some here, but I'll have to read Under the Sparkling Sea first in order to see what traits need to be created. The great thing about the My Little Pony RPG is that the the system is very adaptable while also being easy to learn and run.

In fact, I'm going to commit to it. I'm also going to stat up some Savage Worlds versions of the Mane Six based on the way they are defined in the River Horse game. Given the similarities between the systems, it will not only be easy but fun as well.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Derek Yee's SWORD MASTER is a Beautiful Film in Sonata Form

The wuxia pian is a cinematic genre that wanders in and out of favor among the theater going public, but it is one of the most aesthetically beautiful and emotionally moving genres in film. While there are some basic similarities between wuxia and kung fu films, both often feature wandering warriors, the differences far outweigh the similarities. Chief among these differences is the symphonic nature of wuxia narratives. Where kung fu films tell a story with a central them from beginning to end with all the intervening expository scenes necessary to define the motivations of the characters, the characters in a wuxia pian are the thematic elements. As Stephen Teo writes in Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions about wuxia auteur King Hu, "Hu is the most musical of martial arts directors. He composes his work like a symphonic piece where the recapitulation of a theme is imperative to the enjoyment." The compositional nature of wuxia as a genre is perfectly depicted in Derek Yee's aesthetically beautiful and emotionally powerful 2016 film Sword Master.

Sword Master is a remake of the 1977 Yuen Chor film Death Duel, updated with modern film effects and techniques and directed by Derek Yee who played the role of the lead character in the 1977 production. This is a film where a star performer returns to one of his key roles to direct the film with a new vision. Death Duel was a masterful wuxia film, but Yee's Sword Master has an underlying sorrowful and nostalgic emotional tone that allows it to stand on its own without any real need to be compared to the original save to mention the deeply personal connection the director has with the original film.

On one level Sword Master is a story of how two of the greatest swordsman eventually come to face one another in a fatal duel. How they get there, and their reasons for fighting, are complex. From the opening moments of the film, we know that the skull faced and doomed Yen Shih-San and the legendary Third Master of the Divine Sword Hsieh Shao-Feng must meet in a battle only one will survive. As the film progresses, the audience's emotions range from excitement at the skilled display that awaits to mourning that one of these men must die to accepting that the eventual outcome is not only necessary but beautiful as well. 

Where Sword Master a kung fu film, Yen Shih-San would be pursuing Hsieh Shao-Feng for killing his master or some similar motivation and who the villain and hero is would be cleanly established. That is not the case in this tale told in sonata form, rather than straight forward narrative. 

Following musical compositional stucture, Yen Shih-San represents Death and Swordcraft. From his makeup and music to his character's struggling with an illness of the soul that is killing him as sure as cancer, everything about Yen Shih-San radiates Death. When the film opens Yen Shih-San is on a quest to defeat all of the greatest swordsman in the world in order to secure his legend and to be remembered as the best swordsman of his era. He has forsaken everything in order to attain this end, he has even forsaken his obligation to protect the innocent from those who would oppress them. As a wandering swordsman, he has two obligations. To attain excellence at swordcraft and to defend the innocent. He is only focusing on one of those tasks and this has led to a corruption of his Chi, and his doom. After winning a fight in the opening sequence, he travels to the Divine Sword school in order to challenge their Third Master who is the greatest swordsman of the era. If Yen Shih-San can defeat the Third Master, his journey is complete. Sadly, Yen Shih-San discovers that the Third Master is dead and that everything he has sacrificed is for naught.

Hsieh Shao-Feng represents Humility and Righteousness. When viewers first encounter Hsieh Shao-Feng, he is known only as Ah Chi (or Useless Chi). In Hsieh Shao-Feng's first scene, he spend a night of self destructive excess in which he forsakes all of the material things in life after which he must become the janitor at a brothel in order to pay his debts. Hsieh Shao-Feng has attempted to leave jianghu, the world of martial arts, by forsaking all sense of pride and by abandoning the exercise of martial prowess. We do not know why Hsieh Shao-Feng has chosen this path, we only know that he would rather be beaten near to death than to harm another person. Where Yen Shih-San has chosen combat over Righteousness and Humility, Hsieh Shao-Feng has forsaken swordcraft for Humility and given that he defends the weak at the first opportunity (even though he does so without fighting) we know he has also focused on serving the innocent. 

Each of our warriors is half of a whole. Each represents half of what a swordsman must be. Each leaves the world of martial arts, jianhu, behind at the end of the first act. But one can never leave the world of martial arts, to do so is to be destroyed and to watch those you love suffer. Such are the stakes, and so our two themes must interact in a cinematic equivalent to a developmental section and arrive at a recapitulation of the themes where they are resolved into a single theme and a warrior is made whole.

In order to accomplish this monumental task, there must be an external threat of sufficient scale to bring our heroes back into the world of martial arts and such a threat exists. With the death of the Third Master, the Divine Sword school can no longer keep its place at the top of the martial world. It can no longer protect the weak from the excesses of champions of evil who seek to spread suffering. A new school has risen to challenge the Divine Sword and to spread misery. This school provides the basis for one of multiple relationship triangles in the film. The triangle triangles of conflict include one between our two heroes and the new evil subjugating the masses, a love triangle between Hsieh Shao-Feng, his former fiancee/bride, and his true love, another love triangle between Hsieh Shao-Feng, an admirer of his fiancee, and his fiancee, a triangle representing the struggle between good and evil that contains Hsieh Shao-Feng, Yen Shih-San, and Shao-Feng's father, and another, and another, and another. There are relationship triangles to spare in this film and they each interact in ways that reveal the underlying motivations of the characters.

There is much to write about regarding the intertwining of relationships in Sword Master, but it is much better to watch the interactions of the relationships as they resolve. For in their resolution we unravel the following mysteries: Why did Hsieh Shao-Feng abandon the Divine Sword school and "kill" the Third Master? Why does the new threat exist? Why did Hsieh Shao-Feng abandon his fiancee and how can he have done so while still being a Righteous man? 

All of these questions are answered in a film that is filmed beautifully with wonderful digital matte paintings that transport the audience out of our world and into the fantastic world of rivers and lakes that is the world of martial arts. The high flying swordsmanship is a joy to watch on the screen as the choreography and camera work combine to create vivid imagery that displays great martial prowess without brutality. One may never be able to leave the world of martial arts, but when watching Sword Master one finds that they don't even want to leave. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Los Angeles Gamer Gallery: David Nett

In this first entry in the Los Angeles Gamer Gallery series, we'll be taking a quick look at David Nett. He is a gamer, actor, webseries producer/writer/director, one of the founders of Nerdstrong Gym, and a tremendous advocate for the role playing game hobby. David came to Los Angeles after attending the University of Minnesota at Duluth in order to pursue a career in acting.

I first became aware of David Nett when he and his production company put together an interesting webseries entitled GOLD. The series was about a professional role playing gamer who suffered an injury during a championship match that left him emotionally scarred and unable to effectively lead the U.S. team in international competition. His story takes place at a time when viewers are abandoning watching live games in favor of computer based competitions surrounding MMORPGs. At the time, I thought the story seemed far fetched. Who would watch live role playing game sessions? Other than me that is. In the years since, David seems to have been on to something. While online Game Streams aren't competitive in nature, they can be quite sophisticated and very entertaining.

Where the first season/series of GOLD displays all of the rough edges one expects from an early project, and a significant amount of what I call pilotitis, the second season is a very entertaining and far more personal tale. That series, entitled Night of the Zombie King, doesn't appear to be available for streaming right now, but it is well worth tracking down a copy. Where the first season of GOLD tried to simulate a world with professional gaming on a large scale, this season brings it down to the individual level and tells the tale of a gamer coming home to finish a campaign left unfinished when he moved away from his small town to a larger community. It's a tale of returning to old friends and reliving fond memories while overcoming past wrongs. It's very good and deserves to be expanded into something more.

David recently stopped by Geek & Sundry's GM TIPS show with Satine Phoenix where they discuss what to do when your stories get derailed.

From his acting and directing career, to his work at Nerdstrong Gym, David has found a way to incorporate his gaming experiences into his work and creative endeavors. This is a common theme in the Southern California gaming community, and one of the things I love about it. The gamers I've met down here are about expanding the hobby and using what they've learned in the hobby to make them better at everything else they do. When my friends and I were working on the pre-production of our failed documentary about the "gamers hidden among us" called Dice Chuckers, David was one of the people we wanted to have as our principle interviewees.

Los Angeles Gamer Gallery: A New Series at Advanced Dungeons and Parenting

Los Angeles Gamer Gallery is a series of posts discussing the Los Angeles gaming community and some of the wonderful people who play and promote games in Tinseltown and abroad.

Why the Los Angeles Area?

Though the Los Angeles area has long been a vibrant part of the role playing game community, it is often overlooked in histories of the hobby. In my experience the Midwest and Bay Area tend to dominate histories and discussions of the people involved in the promotion of the hobby, because TSR and Chaosium. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I took a few days to drive around the area to seek out game stores and gaming groups. I had expected to find some, but not too many. After all, Los Angeles is a big city with a lot of distractions, beautiful weather, and all sorts of entertainments. Such a place didn't seem to me to be a good growth environment for people who gather around a table to tell collaborative stories. Okay that should read, "to gather around a table to tell collaborative stories without money being involved," as a large part of Los Angeles' economy is based on sitting around tables and coming up with stories collaboratively. I expected hard core gaming to develop in small towns with long winters, where people are looking for constructive things to do with their time that have to take place indoors.

Yes, those were my assumptions. Yes, they are overly reductive and bad assumptions. But I came from a small town with cold winters, and those were my assumptions. What I quickly discovered was that the Los Angeles area had a rich gaming community, one that has been central to several developments in the gaming hobby.

Shortly after the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game was created, members of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society began playing the game and writing about it in their long running fanzine APA-L. In 1975, authors of APA-L branched out to create Alarums & Excursions under the editorship of Lee Gold. Alarums & Excursions is one of the most influential, if not THE most influential, fanzine in gaming.
  1. It was gamers at Aero Hobbies who created the Thief class for D&D in 1974. 
  2. Students at CalTech played a version of the game called Warlock that was published by Balboa Game Company. 
  3. John Eric Holmes, a professor at USC, wrote the first Basic Set of D&D and in his book Fantasy Roleplaying Games can be seen playing D&D at Long Beach's War House game store.
  4. While Superhero 2044 is the first published superhero role playing game Jay and Aimee Hartlove's Supergame was the first point build superhero rpg that was fully playable out of the book. Like Champions, the Hartlove's work is clearly inspired by Superhero 2044 in how its combat system works.
Southern California influenced the early days of the hobby and remains the home to a vibrant and innovative gaming community to this day. I'll leave discussion of Southern California's place in the history of games to those who already make it their career to document gaming history, what I want to do with the Los Angeles Gamer Gallery is to write short posts that highlight members of the community who inspire or intrigue me.

My first post, which will be posted shortly after this one, will be David Nett. I chose David because he exemplifies the way a lot of Southern California gamers incorporate their gaming experience into their lives in interesting ways.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Madelyn Kidd's Academy for Inquisitive Children: Saturday Morning Investigations in the Deadlands

My recent enjoyment of Saving Throw's recently added Wildcards streaming role playing game show, and the announcement of a Scooby Doo/Supernatural crossover episode on the CW, I was inspired with a small campaign kernel. So join me as I introduce you to...

Madelyn Kidd's Academy for Inquisitive Children

On "real" Independence Day (July 3rd) 1863 the United States and the world experienced "The Reckoning." The border between Earth and the Happy Hunting Grounds was sundered, if only for a moment, and all kinds of terrors leaked into our world. On that day, the field of Gettysburg was littered with corpses...and some of those corpses rose from the grave to spread horror. In the years that followed, the sinister Reckoners selected four champions who would transform the world into a literal Hell on Earth. All of this is well documented in the Deadlands Role Playing Game. What is less well known is that on that day, the forces of Good selected some champions of their own. Four children who were born on the day of The Reckoning who might just have a chance at stopping the world's transformation, but only if they could meet up and gain sufficient knowledge and power to thwart the Servitors who served the Reckoners.

These young children would never have met if it hadn't been for Madelyn Kidd. A simple school teacher from Serendipity, Pennsylvania, Madelyn had been on a picnic with her beau Aleister McKenzie overlooking the Battle of Gettysburg when the events of the Reckoning took place. Her beau was killed by a stray bullet and as Madelyn reached over to comfort her dying lover, she experienced a vision of a terrible future. She saw the world as it would be if the Reckoners had their way. She also saw a vision of hope where she was the founder of a new kind of school, a school dedicated to teaching children the skills necessary to fight back evil and to bring joy to lands that are dominated by fear.

While her vision was grand, the results so far have been very meager. Madelyn Kidd's Academy for Inquisitive Children was successfully established in 1865 in the town of Serendipity, Pennsylvania. The first graduating class of two students matriculated in 1869 and both of these students have gone on to jobs with the Union Government. Since that time, Madelyn has trained a number of gifted young students and currently has 45 students enrolled in her school. For all that success, not one of her students has gone on to achieve any great success against the evils the world is facing. All of her students are struggling against the darkness, but no great hero has emerged. Madelyn is on the verge of giving up hope as her four oldest currently enrolled students seem more concerned with solving local mysteries than they are with confronting greater threats.

Madelyn had high hopes for these four students. All four were born on the same day, July 3rd 1863, and all four exhibited high levels of potential. They were quick learners too, but they lack focus. They constantly take day trips in their Stagecoach, which they have named the Ratiocination Roller, to neighboring cities to unravel mysteries that the locals think are supernatural. Initially, Madelyn encouraged the behavior because she knew how important it was to fight real supernatural dangers, but as it became clear that every "supernatural" foe the students fought was revealed to be a fraud she began to lose hope. How would these students fare against the real horrors of the Weird West, let alone the Servitors, if they never had to face down supernatural horrors? It's a worry that has begun to affect her sleep. She recently sent them on a trip to disputed territory to do a field study of flora and fauna in the hopes that the students would begin their training in earnest. Time is so short and 17 year old kids have to grow up quickly in the Weird West.

What Madelyn doesn't know is that her students really are fighting supernatural foes, they only make it appear that the creatures they defeat are humans in disguise of swamp gas. This is because "Em" Vilnius noticed that when she made towns think that the evil that haunted them was a mere trick being performed by greedy individuals, those towns became happier and more successful places. It didn't take "Em" long to catch on to the fact that the best way to undermine the Reckoners was to take away the power that fueled them...fear. The kids, who call themselves Ratiocination Incorporation, are looking forward to their trip into the Weird West with the knowledge that if they get into too much trouble, they might be able to call on Madelyn Kidd and her other students to help them fight the good fight.

What every the case, Madelyn hopes to create a world where the Reckoners might have succeeded if not for those Madelyn Kidds kids.

Madelyn Kidd 

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d10, Spirit d6, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d6, Gambling d6, Guts d6, Intimidation d6, Investigation d8, Persuasion d6, Riding d6, Spellcasting d10, Stealth d4, Streetwise d8
Charisma: 2; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 5; Grit: 3
Hindrances: Enemy (Major), Heavy Sleeper, Loyal
Edges: Arcane Background (Magic), Attractive, Brave, Connections, Investigator, Linguist, New Power, Power Points
Powers: Armor, bolt (burning cards), hunch, mind rider; Power Points: 15
Gear: Hatchet, Knife (Str+d4) x3, Playing cards x8, Shirt/blouse, dress, Spectacles, $247 

Jedediah Heiter

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d6, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d4, Guts d6, Investigation d6, Notice d4, Persuasion d4, Repair d8, Shooting d6, Weird Science d8
Charisma: 0; Pace: 6; Parry: 4; Toughness: 5; Grit: 1
Hindrances: Big Mouth, Doubting Thomas, Overconfident
Edges: Arcane Background (Weird Science), Knack (Bastard), New Power
Powers: Deflection (Jedediah's Ocular Disruptor), stun (Jedidiah's Auditory Imbalancer); Power Points: 20
Gear: Backpack, Bed roll, Boots, Canteen, Derby, Drill, Duster, File, Gun belt, Hammer, Lantern, Lantern oil (per gallon) x2, Lockpicks, Mule, Rifle (.38-.52) x5, Shirt/blouse, work, Trousers/skirt, Watch, gold, Winchester ‘76 (.45) (Range 24/48/96, 2d8, Shots 15, AP 2), $62.65

Petra Quartz

Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d4, Spirit d6, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d6, Guts d6, Intimidation d6, Notice d4, Riding d6, Shooting d8, Streetwise d4, Throwing d6
Charisma: 0; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 5; Grit: 1
Hindrances: Arrogant, Stubborn, Vengeful (Minor)
Edges: Quick Draw, Two-Fisted
Gear: Backpack, Bed roll, Boots, Chaps, Colt Peacemaker (.45, Double-Action) (Range 12/24/48, 2d6+1, Shots 6, AP 1) x2, Duster, Gun belt, Knife (Str+d4), Pistol (.40-.50) x10, Quick-draw holster, Rifle (.38-.52) x5, Shirt/blouse, work, Trousers/skirt, Winchester ‘76 (.45) (Range 24/48/96, 2d8, Shots 15, AP 2), $133 

Eliza "Em" Vilnius (Hellstromme)

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d8, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Faith d8, Fighting d6, Guts d6, Investigation d4, Persuasion d8, Riding d6, Shooting d6
Charisma: 2; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 5; Grit: 1
Hindrances: Bad Dreams, Heavy Sleeper, Loyal
Edges: Arcane Background (Miracles), Brave, Charismatic
Powers: Aim, armor, barrier, beast friend, blind, boost/lower trait, confusion, deflection, dispel, elemental manipulation, environmental protection, exorcism, gambler, greater healing, healing, inspiration, light/obscure, protection, pummel, quickness, sanctify, smite, speak language, stun, succor, warrior’s gift, windstorm
Gear: Boots, Horse, Knife, Bowie (Str+d4+1, AP 1), Saddle, Saddlebags, Shirt/blouse, dress, Shoes, Shotgun shells x2, Suit/fancy dress, Trousers/skirt, Winchester LeverAction (Range 12/24/48, 1–3d6, Shots 4, +2 Shooting rolls), 80¢


Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d4, Spirit d8, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d8, Guts d6, Intimidation d6, Riding d6, Throwing d6, Tracking d4, Tribal Medicine d6
Charisma: 0; Pace: 6; Parry: 7; Toughness: 6; Grit: 1
Hindrances: All Thumbs, Curious, Loyal
Edges: Arcane Background (Shamanism), Beast Master, Brawny
Powers: Beast Friend, healing; Power Points: 10
Gear: Arrow x5, Bolas (Range 4/8/16, Str+1, Shots 1, see notes), Boots, Bow (Range 12/24/48, 2d6, Shots 1), Horse, Knife, Bowie (Str+d4+1, AP 1) x2, Shirt/blouse, work, Spear (Str+d6, Parry +1; Reach 1; requires 2 hands), Tomahawk (Str+d6), Trousers/skirt, $68.50

Friday, May 12, 2017

Daleks Battle Cybermen in Doctor Who: Exterminate Miniatures Game Starter Set

In 2015, Warlord Games announced that they had acquired a license to produce games and game related material for the Doctor Who television show. Warlord Games is one of the premiere miniature gaming companies in the market today with a catalog that features some of the best games on the market including: Bolt Action!, Beyond the Gates of Antares, Konflict '47, and a long list of rules sets for various historical and fictional settings.

Warlord Games was founded in 2007 when company founders, John Stallard and Paul Sawyer who had experience working for Games Workshop, decided to create a new miniatures company that offered high quality plastic miniatures for overlooked genres. Their first product was a set of 28mm plastic Roman Legionnaires, which was successful enough for the company to continue and grow. And grow they have. In the decade since their founding, Warlord Games has expanded into creating rules for almost every historical era and two fictional settings. They produce high quality rules and high quality miniatures for gaming and have a focus on creating affordable games.  This focus has inspired them to create a line of print and play paper wargames as well as their miniatures games.

Doctor Who: Exterminate is Warlord Games first major game license release, though Warlord Games will be releasing products for 2000AD properties in the near future. The Doctor Who: Exterminate starter set retails for £35.00 and includes two factions (Daleks and Cybermen) as well as rules for using the Doctor and Companions in play. Miniatures sets for the 10th and 12th Doctor, as well as a number of other factions, can be purchased separately. It should be noted that the rules needed to play the Doctor or alternate factions are included in the base boxed set and only the miniatures need to be purchased separately.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this game plays, but I doubt that it will be displacing 7TV as my "go to" game for 60s, 70s, and 80s BBC/ITV science fiction and espionage game play. That's the great thing about products like this though, you buy them for the parts you want (either miniatures or rules) and use other systems for the parts you don't. 

It's a nice looking set, and I'll likely be pre-ordering it when it comes available in the US store or I decide I'm willing to pay exorbitant international shipping.