Monday, August 20, 2012

Thirty Days of Graphic Novels, Day 19: "Boneyard, Volume 2"

Boneyard continues to be a real joy; light-hearted, but with a real sense of affection for the characters.  In this volume, Paris gets hit with a massive bill for inheritance taxes--so large there's no way he'd ever be able to pay it.  Even worse, his "friends" wreck his car and destroy some city property at the same time.  In order to help pay his bills to the city, the cemetery crew arrange a charity boxing match featuring the vampire Abbey and the werewolf Ralph.  There are funny subplots galore, and the whole thing is just a fun, relaxing read.  I'll have to manage to track down the subsequent volumes one of these days . . .

Sunday, August 19, 2012

RealmsToowoomba Recap # 4 [RPG]

[1 Tarsakh 1372]

Morning comes with the group of shipwrecked adventurers camped outside the now burned-out tower, a former temple to the dead god Myrkul.  The group begins the trek back to the beach, and arrive without incident.  There, they inform Illanus of Borya’s death and discuss the best way to escape the island.  The consensus is to build a large signal fire.  While Rolen, Fargrim, and Tazi try to find enough edible plants to keep the group alive, Cain and Nakor begin chopping wooden planks out of the hull of one of the wrecked ships.  The foragers and the wood-gatherers each have good luck, and soon a roaring fire is built on the beach.  Yet no ship comes.

[2 Tarsakh 1372]

Another day passes as the one before, but the foraging party has little luck and the food supply is running low.  Another signal fire is built, but no ship is in sight.

[3 Tarsakh 1372]

The party’s food supply is exhausted and things look grim.  But late at night, a ship is spotted, its lanterns burning brightly over the darkened sea.  The group rouses from their slumber to see that the ship has dispatched a longboat and it’s headed in their direction.  As the longboat approaches, its obvious that several armed figures are aboard, aiming crossbows at those on shore.  The leader of the armed men jumps down onto the beach and addresses Nakor, whom the group have named as their representative.

Nakor quickly takes stock of the stranger, and decides he’s the sort who would cut his mother’s throat for a silver piece.  In order to keep the man, who identifies himself as First Mate Gristle, from ordering his men to attack, Nakor promises that if he is returned to civilization he’ll arrange a sizable award from his family in Sembia.  Further, at Nakor’s signal, the other adventurers assume an intimidating posture, and it’s enough to keep Gristle hesitant.  He decides to go along with Nakor’s proposal, at least for the time being, and orders everyone on board the longboat while his men go to quickly plunder the merchandise left aboard one of the wrecks.

On board the main vessel, The Woeful Tide, the group quickly realizes they’re on board a slave ship.  Dozens of slaves are chained to the oars, while others, intended for sale, are chained to central posts below decks.  A few square feet of rough wooden planks are set aside for the adventurers to make the most of.

[4 Tarsakh 1372]

Nakor bribes one of the crew to provide food for the group.  Fargrim has an important conversation with the leader of the dwarf slaves, a kidnapped merchant courier from Fireshear named Grindlestone Threebeards.  Threebeards says that with the newcomers’ help, the slaves could revolt and take control of the ship which is currently headed for Luskan.  Fargrim seems sympathetic to his fellow dwarf’s plight, and decides to share the proposal with his companions.  At first, some are reluctant, but the possibility of being able to loot the unseen and mysterious Captain Scummock’s cabin provides enough incentive for them to go along with the plan.  Nakor tries to enlist the handful of elven slaves to join the revolt, but they refuse to communicate with him after the half-elven Rolen’s constant mockery of their plight.  It is clear there is little love lost between the monk and elvenkind.

Soon, a multi-step plan is put into place.  Careful observation shows that First Mate Gristle has a key-ring that presumably would unlock the slaves’ chains while another guard has a key to the storeroom.  By questioning an inept spy put to watch them, the adventurers learn that the First Mate has a weakness for hard spirits.  A fake fight is arranged, in which Fargrim is to cuff Rolen, who is supposed to fall into the guard with the key to the storeroom allowing for Nakor to steal the key from him.  Fargrim goes through with his part of the plan, but Rolen is staggered by the punch and slips onto the deck without running into the guard, hurting his hand in the process.  Nakor still manages to steal the storeroom key under the guise of needing help to get Rolen to his feet.

With key in hand, Nakor waits until night falls and most of the slaves and crew are asleep.  He then sneaks up to the main deck, stealthily makes his way into the storeroom, and exits with several bottles of rum.  He makes a loud noise when trying to lock the door after him, however, and one of the guards is alerted.  Fortunately, Nakor convinces the man that Gristle sent him, and after a small bribe the guard is satisfied.  Nakor’s task isn’t finished yet, however, as he then has to convince Gristle to start drinking when it’s become abundantly clear that it’s explicitly against the Captain’s orders for the crew to drink while at sea.  The Sembian rogue’s persuasive powers prove up to the task, as he arranges with Gristle for the First Mate to “confiscate” the liquor from an illicit below-decks party.    Within a few hours, Gristle is stunningly drunk and is an easy target for Nakor’s pickpocketing ability.

With the keys now in their possession, the adventurers decide to wait a couple of more hours to make sure everyone else is sound asleep before freeing the slaves and beginning a battle for control of The Woeful Tide.  On their side is the element of surprise and small group of dwarves ready for a fight.  Opposing them, however, is fifteen cut-throat pirates and slavers used to fighting tooth and nail . . . and the mysterious Captain Scummock, who still has not shown his face.
Director's Commentary (May 10, 2013)

Excellent role-playing in this session, and a good example of how a session can be a lot of fun and exciting even without any combat.  Nakor's ability to bluff and manipulate is on full display here, and would lead to him being called "Silvertongue" as a nickname.  After his player's departure several sessions from this point, the group eventually gets other rogues but none that have his same ability to flatter, wheedle, blackmail, and connive every NPC (and some PCs) he meets . . .

This was an enjoyable session for me because I got to put the pieces in place (a slave ship, a "rescue" boat, a mysterious captain) but with no idea how events will transpire.  The intimidation of the long-boat party was the result of some extremely high rolls, and left the PCs in the unusual position of being passengers on board a ship full of slaves.  It's not 100% clear to me exactly what motivated them to lead the uprising: I don't think it was necessarily out of concern for the plight of the slaves, but, in any event, they had a fun plan and managed to make it work despite some complications.  Of course, the actual battle itself takes place in the following session, and that didn't turn out quite the way the PCs intended.

As for the mysterious Captain Scummock, it's enjoyable as a director to have some secrets from the players.  I still hear speculation once in a while about who/what he was: undead, a beholder, a fake invoked by Gristle to keep the crew in line?  I'll never tell, unless the PCs happen to find themselves back on the Sword Coast seeking revenge. . .

Next Recap

Clone Wars Campaign: Recap # 52

The penultimate session--and what a good one!  Action, betrayal, prophecy, and farewells.  I'm really proud of this one and everyone's excellent role-playing that really showed how well everyone understood his or her character's personality after having played so many sessions.

The session begins with Stefan being suspiciously at ease with the idea of of going with Arresta to pick up Tarn and Master Creen on Haruun Kal.  Little does she know that, along the way, he makes a brief stop at Mongui to persuade Jocasta to have a fast shuttle deliver to Haruun Kal an innocuous little crate containing . . . Siege Commander Korg!  The party's arrival, and Stefan's ordering "Plan 17" to be carried into motion (the destruction of Creen's spaceship, with Creen supposed to be on it) was a sudden dramatic twist that left some mouths hanging open, as did Creen's rushing out of the jungle with Korunnai and Akk dogs at his behest.  It was a great battle between two of the most powerful NPCs in the campaign, and, as always, I start such things without having any idea how they will end because so much depends on luck and the ever-unpredictable PCs.  

This is where I think the most surprising thing of the session, and perhaps of the campaign, took place: Daal secretly betraying Arresta's trust and shooting Stefan from behind!  I've gotta give props to Daal's player; no one, including me, saw it coming, he chose the perfect time, and the perfect weapon.  Yet it was all in character, as Daal had long been "Team Tarn" to Doxen's "Team Stefan."  Even better, he lied about it plausibly and planted the idea (completely false) that perhaps Creen modified his mind.  Arresta's player had to use her precious red chip in order to save Stefan's life, and not having one in reserve may have influenced her most dramatic decision next session.

The scene at the end of the session was a good one, albeit one of much controversy.  Tarn's offer to take Arresta and Allegra into the Anomaly with him, where (if things were the same as the last time inside) they could spend an infinite amount of time together with mere moments passing outside was, to me, both grand, epic SF and absurdly romantic.  To The Wife, playing Arresta, it was horrendously impractical and dangerous to take an infant into such a place, and the mere offer displayed Tarn's naivety.  Both views are probably true.

A great session, with one more yet to come.


It is the end of an era.  Within days, the last shot of the Clone Wars will be fired, the last pillar of the Republic will be toppled, and the last of the Jedi will be murdered.  And even for a small group who have travelled the galaxy together in the midst of danger and adventure for almost three years, the end is imminent.  Yet one last chance remains to shape the nature of that ending before it is too late . . .

On Coruscant, Doxen slowly approaches the rendezvous point in Magra Monad, laden down with all the equipment he and his companions had left at The Elite. Contacting Stefan Cassadine, he arranges to wait for his friends outside the impressive building. The others (Stefan and Arresta Cassadine, along with their daughter, Nanny and bodyguard Xam, as well as the displaced ship’s Captain Jasper Fallon and his Jawa aide Kako) arrive and Jasper fills the others in on the events that led him to seek them out at the hotel. Stefan heads into the apartment complex, along with his daughter, and Arresta arranges to speak with Doxen alone. She tells her Ewok friend that she has confessed all to her husband (his own mistreatment at the hand’s of Master Creen, her journey to rescue Tarn, the Jedi’s meeting with his daughter and her promise to wait thirty days before leaving the Republic). Doxen is surprised that Stefan is handling the news well and is sceptical when Arresta tells him that her husband has agreed to travel to Haruun Kal. There, she hopes to convince Tarn to leave her and Allegra in peace. Still, Doxen agrees to travel with her. She also tells him that Daal is carrying a weapon which could be used to destroy the Accelerated--a powerful device obtained by the Altered and called an “N-bomb.” They decide that Jasper could be useful and head off in search of surveillance equipment to ascertain if the pilot is secreting any listening devices on his person. 
Stefan though, is ahead of his wife and has already had his aide Xam recruit Jasper and Kako into his service. Anxious to be off-planet, Jasper hastily agrees to the plan and is delighted when escorted to The Knife’s Edge, now partially disguised. As he examines the luxury craft and places his remaining toy rancor on the command console, he decides he could enjoy this job. 
Arresta finds that Stefan’s mood is more jovial than she would have expected and she grows concerned at statements he makes about “resolving this with finality”. She reminds him of his promise (not to kill Tarn) and also voices her concern that they should avoid Master Creen, who she believes is dangerous. Doxen excuses himself to give the couple time to talk and they appear to have settled things by the time he rejoins them. 
Once all are aboard The Knife’s Edge, Jasper prepares to take the ship into hyperspace, but sensor sweeps do pick up a shadow at the edge of the field. Jasper consults directly with Stefan and eventually the ship enters hyperspace. During the journey, Doxen avails himself of the ship’s facilities and Jasper enjoys piloting the expensive vessel. Doxen joins the Cassadines for dinner most nights and Jasper is also included on several formal occasions. For her part, Arresta monitors her husband’s mood closely and does her best to reduce any stress. Stefan appears more relaxed than she expected and is attentive to his wife and daughter. They spend time planning for the future of their family. 

Stefan arranges for Jasper to bring the ship out of hyperspace around Mongui and swears him to secrecy.  Stefan also holds a conversation with Doxen, in which the Ewok agrees to aide him should a confrontation with Creen ensue.  However, Doxen turns down the offer of a permanent position with Cassadine Enterprises.  After a brief stay in the system, the ship re-enters hyperspace with Arresta none the wiser.

Several nights into the journey though, Arresta is plagued by nightmares. She recalls her father’s betrayal but also sees her worst fears: infidelity from her husband and the loss of her child. Eventually though, the dream turns into something else and she sees the woman she knows as “The Oracle.”

Queen.  Time has run its course, and the End of Days have come.  If all has transpired as I have foreseen, when first we met it was my ending.  When second we met, it was my beginning.  And now I am at my prime, and have lived on inside your mind until this day and never again.  Soon the knights you disdain will be swept away.  Soon your birthplace will be the merest plaything in a madman’s grasp.  Soon, the Kings who vie for your hand will have a final reckoning.   The heart of your realm will be enflanked, and on the eighth day thereafter the Uncreated shall answer the call of the Empress Uncanny.  Every dream of salvation shatters in your hands, but against hope I hope, for only the four prophesied, together, can stem the tide.  This I have seen, and no more.

  Waking the next morning, Arresta seeks out her husband and finds him doing laps in the ship’s pool. She hesitantly tells him about her nightmare and asks him about his encounter with Sunset Cassandra. Stefan is amused at her possessiveness and reminds his wife that she already broke the girl’s nose, before reassuring her that his affections are firmly fixed where they should be. He dismisses her fears related to the things that the Oracle said and suggests that she rely on fact and logic. He draws her into a kiss and playfully offers to pull her into the pool with him to clear her head. 

Elsewhere, at Shey Tepani Expedition Point deep in the steaming jungles of Haruun Kal, Daal finally wakes from a feverish dream in which he had a strange vision.  

Stranger.  It is time.  The End of Days is here.  If all has transpired as I have foreseen, when first we met it was my ending.  When second we met, it was my beginning.  And now I am at my prime, and have lived on inside your mind until this day could come.  Soon the armies you helped build will fall.    Soon the government of rule by many will fall, replaced by the rule of one, and a new age of darkness will fall.  Soon the Knight you befriended will venture forth to his greatest moment, and the woman who loves him will make her most difficult choice.  These things you cannot prevent.  But even worse lies ahead.  On the eighth day after the gleaming planet is besieged, the Corsair will summon the Uncreated.  It is a vessel.  It is a weapon.  And whomsoever wields it will be master of fate.  Only the four prophesied, together, can destroy it forever.  This I have seen, and no more.

When he comes to himself, he finds he is in care of the medical droid, Scraper. Daal learns that Tarn has headed into the jungle and it is too late to follow him. He learns that Creen remained behind waiting for a coming “darkness” and that the Jedi meditates by day and heads into the jungle by night. Soon, a strange crate is dropped off near the ship and investigation reveals weapons signatures on the inside. Daal offers a warning to Master Creen but the Jedi is uninterested. Unable to secure answers from Creen, Daal trails him into the jungle one night. Although he can hear Creen whispering to someone, he cannot get closer without revealing himself. 

[A.G. 1077]

Several days pass, until a somewhat altered (but still familiar) ship lands, and Daal comes forward to greet his friends descending from The Knife’s Edge. He tells them that Tarn is still in the jungle but that Creen is here meditating aboard The Flaming Halo as he does every afternoon. Stefan Cassadine hears this and immediately puts “Plan 17” into action via comlink. Arresta is shocked when suddenly, The Knife’s Edge lifts up, hovers over the outpost, and fires on the undefended Flaming Halo.  Simultaneously, the sides of the strange crate fall away and Siege Commander Korg is revealed, and unleashes a rocket barrage on the freighter.  A series of explosions rock the outpost as The Flaming Halo is reduced to a burning pile of wreckage within seconds. Stefan calmly tells his startled wife that he will be happy to replace her friend’s ship, but that Creen is an obstacle to his family’s happiness that must be removed.
Watching the Flaming Halo literally burn, Stefan’s plan seems to have been a success until someone notices treetops swaying in the jungle to the east.  Everyone takes up defensive positions, but are startled to see Master Creen lead a small army of Korunnai and Akk dogs out of the jungle.  Before Korg can turn, three of the Akk dogs slam into the massive war droid, whipping him with their thick armoured tails and tearing into his carapace with metal-rending teeth.  Although Korg manages to slay one of the beasts, he is soon felled and the invaders turn their attention to Stefan and the others.  Arresta and Jasper quickly move to defend him, while Doxen takes up a sniping position in the jungle and Daal manoeuvres to the rear of the group.
The fighting is fast and furious, as Master Creen quickly closes into hand-to-hand combat with Stefan and his protectors.  Creen fights like a whirling demon, deflecting blaster bolts at point blank range, calling lightning from the clear skies to strike his foes, and slashing with his lightsaber.  Stefan is taken aback by the ferocity of the attack which leaves him bleeding within moments.  He signals for The Knife’s Edge to land, intending to provide everyone with an escape route.  As it begins to descend, his protectors concentrate all of their fire on Creen.  Doxen’s shots begin to slip through the Jedi Master’s defenses, and it appears to be a race to see whether Creen or Stefan will fall first.
However, the tide of the battle suddenly turns when Daal secretly fires on Stefan from behind!  Daal’s strange blaster taken from an industrial spy in the Corporate Sector fires bolts which are both invisible and paralyzing, and Stefan suddenly drops to the ground.  Seizing the advantage, Creen empathically instructs one of the remaining Akk dogs to drag Stefan aboard the now-landed Knife’s Edge, and the Jedi Master follows.  Realizing that her husband and daughter are aboard the ship, Arresta manages to wrench herself free from an Akk dog and scramble up the landing ramp seconds before it closes.  Creen seems reluctant to harm his pupil’s greatest love, and responds to Arresta’s tearful pleading by allowing her, Stefan, and the crew of the Knife’s Edge to leave the ship in defeat.  Creen tells Arresta that he’s taking the Knife’s Edge as a reminder to Stefan that the price of betrayal is high, and that the next time Stefan crosses him, the price will be the crimelord’s life.  The Knife’s Edge, with Creen and his Korunnai allies on board, lifts off and disappears into the upper atmosphere.
After confirming that her husband is still alive, Arresta checks on her friends. She has no proof, but is suspicious that Daal, whose dislike of Stefan is known, was behind her husband when he suddenly collapsed. She consults her friend and is concerned when he claims to have holes in his memory. She tells Doxen she is worried that Creen has done something to the mind of their Duro companion. 

[A.G. 1079]

Trapped without transport at the jungle outpost, the group sets about treating injuries and making repairs. Arresta arranges for Kako and Jasper to work on the communications equipment, hoping they can summon shuttles from one of the cities elsewhere on the planet. Daal and Doxen work to repair Korg – and to secretly reprogram him. Eventually, all are successful, though Jasper temporarily falls prey to radiation sickness. A shuttle is dispatched from the capital city and the Cassadines, along with Korg, depart. The others stay behind to wait for Tarn, but agree to check in daily.  Arresta is nervous to travel with Korg, fearing that Daal may have done something to sabotage him, but they make it to the city unharmed. Korg is placed in storage and the Cassadines find an acceptable hotel, though one below their normal standards. She finds her husband somewhat abashed by the rout they suffered versus Creen and she reminds him that she is supposed to be the reckless one in this family. 

[A.G. 1080]

Days pass. Arresta focuses on her family. Jasper woos the ladies of the university outpost. Daal tinkers with whatever equipment he can find. Doxen improves the local boot-leg alcohol and indulges himself.  On the anniversary of the third full year since the war began, the official Holonet news broadcast explodes first with the news of the Battle of Coruscant and the kidnapping of Chancellor Palpatine, then again hours later with the triumphant reports of his rescue by the heroic Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. 

[A.G. 1086]

At last, a figure comes running out of the jungle. Tarn Tamarand, dirty, sweaty and tired, has arrived. He is shocked at the wreckage, but relieved to see Daal and to tell him that he has been successful in obtaining the thought-spores. Daal explains that the wreckage is the result of the battle between Creen and Stefan. Tarn is startled to learn that Arresta is on planet, but he is anxious to see her and profess his love. He reveals he was worried he would miss the deadline to reach her before thirty days had passed. “I promised her I would come back for her.”  He reveals to Daal that Creen will be returning for him and then they will journey to Mongui. There, he intends to use the thought-spores to destroy the Accelerated, as they affect everyone who uses telepathy. “You use telepathy, Tarn!” Daal reminds his friend, but the young Jedi is prepared to sacrifice himself. Daal cautions him then, about what he will say to the Princess, if he plans to embark on a mission he will not return from. Tarn is resolute – and claims to have a plan. 
Daal contacts Arresta and she sends the shuttle to pick them up. She decides to wait until the shuttle arrives at the hotel to tell her husband that Tarn is on his way. Meanwhile, Doxen advises Jasper to pack up. The journey on the shuttle is awkward. Jasper, meeting Tarn for the first time, is highly amused that the younger man is “hooked on the first woman to take him bed”. Doxen, still under the effects of the local alcohol, mocks Tarn as well, reminding him that Arresta travelled here with her husband – he thinks that the young Jedi is a fool. 
When the shuttle arrives and Arresta cautiously advises Stefan that Tarn’s arrival is imminent, he fixes her with a cool stare and tells her that he already knows – his people informed him, some time ago. She ruefully laughs and says that she should have known better than to try to keep secrets from him. She begs her husband to show his trust in her by allowing her to speak to Tarn privately. Stefan is reluctant, but does agree. 
At last the visitors arrive at the suite and Tarn Tamarand, looking very much like a man who has spent two weeks trekking through the jungle, stands in front of the immaculately attired Stefan Cassadine. Giving the younger man the once over, Stefan curtly points Tarn to the balcony where he and Arresta can talk.  Arresta, feeling the eyes of everyone in the room on them through the balcony door, is nervous. She tries to tell Tarn that she kept her promise, that he can see Allegra one more time but that she and the baby are better off where they are. Tarn is confidant though that her presence here signals that he is the man she truly loves. 

As always, they get off on the wrong foot when Tarn tells her that he will be leaving soon to join Creen. Arresta tells him that Creen is dangerous and that thanks to him, she and Allegra have lost their home. Tarn defends his Master, Arresta defends her husband, and a slip of the tongue reveals Tarn’s plan with the thought-spores. But, the Jedi continues, he has another part to his plan. He believes he can fight off the effects long enough to make it inside the anomaly, where time does not pass as normal. He offers Arresta the chance to join him there, where they could have a lifetime together exploring a new universe, and that whenever she desired she could step outside and it would be as if only seconds had passed.
Arresta is befuddled by this plan. She reminds Tarn that the anomaly was hardly a safe place, and definitely no place for them to take their daughter, besides the fact that the baby would be denied the opportunity to live and grow normally. She also suggests that asking her to abandon her husband “because he wouldn’t even notice the passage of time” is tantamount to asking her to run off and have an affair with him. She tells Tarn she cannot believe he is serious. 
They continue to argue as Tarn responds that he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t complete this mission. She tries to tell him that she has a family – responsibilities – and that she can’t live with herself if she keeps finding excuses to run away from them. Finally, with nothing really resolved, they go inside to retrieve the baby and to allow Tarn a moment or two with his daughter. Stefan, having observed what was clearly an argument, appears smugly pleased. Sadly, Tarn holds Allegra in his arms and whispers in her ear.  Turning to depart he looks at Arresta. “Good-bye Princess.”  He tells Daal to take care of her, and walks out the door.

Return to Clone Wars Campaign Main Page

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Torchwood: "Fragments" (S2, E12)

"It's the 21st century, Jack, and everything's going to change.  And we're not ready."


Season Two, Episode Twelve ("When a booby-trapped building explodes we learn how each of the team was recruited to Torchwood.")


*  Starting off the episode with everyone inside a building when it blows up?  Can't complain about the hook.

*  Seeing the cruel, callous Victorian-era Torchwood that Jack joins.  I can never get enough of Alice & Emily.  Loved the caption "1,392 Deaths Earlier".

* Reinforcement that one of the reasons Jack stayed with Torchwood and in Cardiff is that he knew the TARDIS refueled from the rift from time to time so he was hoping to run into the Doctor again.

*  The scene in 1999 as we realize that Torchwood's head, Alex, has murdered the entire team and then shoots himself.  That's some dark SF right there . . .

*  Ianto's flashback and the mini-romantic comedy with the pterodactyl complication.

*  Owen's flashback--one of my favorite stories of the show.  Heartbreaking, and it explains so much about why Owen is the way he is.

*  The cliffhanger--Jack's brother!  Say what!?!?


*  The blowfish alien.  Even a century ago, still lame.

*  UNIT operating a Guantanamo Bay style prison for Tosh.  It's hard for me to root for a country or its government that does such things.


*  The strange future-predicting young girl; still not sure who she is or how she gets her powers.


*  A very brief scene of Tosh in prison, talking through the walls with a creepy fellow prisoner.


*  Talking heads about shooting the flashbacks; nothing particularly new or interesting.

Thirty Days of Graphic Novels, Day 18: "Stuffed!"

Stuffed! was a quirky but quite readable independent graphic novel about somewhat estranged brothers who inherit their father's idiosyncratic "Museum of the Rare and Curious."  One of the things they find inside is a display featuring an old-fashioned and quite racist display of an African "savage."  Turns out, much to the dismay of one of the brothers, that what they thought was a statue is actually a real, stuffed human being.  The brothers begin a mission to have the poor fellow's body repatriated through a museum to his country of origin, but complications ensue.  The premise is probably funnier than the actual execution, but the characters are portrayed well and the artwork is clear and likable.  I'd grade it a solid B for effort and look forward to more from the authors.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Thirty Days of Graphic Novels, Day 17: "World Without a Superman"

What happens after a Superman dies?  World Without a Superman collects the nine issues after Superman's death at the hands of Doomsday, and it's interesting to see superhero comics without  the superhero.  One of the things that becomes clear is that the four Superman titles at the time (Action Comics, Adventures of Superman, The Man of Steel, and simply Superman) had a broad and well-established supporting cast to pick up the slack: Lois Lane, Ma & Pa Kent, Lex Luthor, Turpin, Maggie Sawyer, the Cadmus Project, Gangbuster, and even Bibbo carry scenes by themselves and manage to move the story forward without (for the most part) any fisticuffs.  Story threads include Superman's funeral (I laughed when I saw all the big gun heroes in attendance like Green Lantern, Flash, and Wonder Woman, and then right next to them is a goofball third-rater like Geo-Force), his body being stolen by the Cadmus Project for cloning experimentation, Pa Kent having a heart attack, and more.  For a mainstream super hero book, the emotional moments featuring Lois & the Kents are quite well done and affecting.

It's all a lead in to the more famous Reign of the Supermen stories, which I hope to get to sometime soon (it's a thick book!).

Monday, August 13, 2012

Thirty Days of Graphic Novels, Day Sixteen "Warlords"

The setting for Warlords is a bog-standard, extremely generic pseudo-medieval fantasy realm that would be extremely familiar to most players of D&D.  The minor twist in the setting is that the known world is divided into four kingdoms ruled by four brothers who tore the lands asunder after their father died.  The warlords have different personalities (and you can probably match faces to names after glancing at the cover): King Marcus is an evil wizard, straight out of a Disney movie; King Phillipe is a noble leader, also straight out of a Disney movie; King Dom is more interesting, a would-be holy crusader who has the ability to mystically lull his followers into subservience; and King Restivo, a tinkerer who is quite fond of mechanical devices.  The story concerns the travels and travails of "Just Plain Dwayne", a troll whom most of us would actually think of more like a halfling.  Dwayne is something of a con-man and thief, and gets into all sorts of trouble as he encounters the various warlords before lending a hand in the resolution of the final four-way battle.  Spoiler: the good warlord wins!

Perfectly average, undemanding, and unoriginal fantasy fare.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Realms Toowoomba Recap # 3 [RPG]

[29 Ches 1372]

After a night's rest, the shipwrecked adventurers begin their fifth day of being stranded on a mysterious, foreboding island. They decide to press on through the dense foliage which remains unusual for the climate. After a few hours' march, they arrive at a large clearing, dominated by an almost 50' tall tower. 
Nakor is sent to scout the base of the tower, and he returns to the group with startling news: Borya is still alive, and is chained to a stake at the base of the tower! However, Nakor is suspicious it may be an illusion or some other form of trap, and the group is torn with indecision as they continue to hear plaintive cries for rescue. Finally, Rolen and Fargrim work up the courage to approach, and are ill repaid for their bravery as Borya is revealed to have been infected by ghoul disease and sinks his teeth into Rolen's neck. Fargrim is quick to respond and shatters Ghoul-Borya's spine with a mighty blow from his warhammer! It is a tragic fate for a heroic warrior, and Boyja's former companions decide to give his body the burial it deserves.

A close inspection of the tower shows that its blackened walls are made of various humanoid bones. After a brief search at the base of the tower, the group is flummoxed to find no obvious means of entry. They decide to camp in the treeline, within sight of the tower, and hope that the groups of undead they've witnessed on the island in the past will enter or exit the tower and reveal a secret door. Their plan is a good one, and as darkness falls, they witness another example of what has become a pattern: a sudden storm, undead attackers, strange red mists, and the corpses of freshly-killed seafarers animated into a hollow vestige of life.

[30 Ches 1372]

With a rough idea of where the door is hidden, the group manages to find the trigger mechanism after several minutes of fumbling around. Nakor is impaled by a scythe trap, but the group gains entry. What lays before them is a horrific sight: in a massive pit in the center of the tower writhes dozens, even hundreds, of undead. Tendrils of mysterious red energy seems to be drawn from each one and coalesces into a coursing beam that winds its way towards the unseen top of the tower. Noticing a stone staircase on the other side of the pit with a strange statue nearby, Nakor's suspicion once again pays off when he shoots an arrow at the statue and it animates into a hideous, winged bone construct. Working together, the group destroys it and gain access to the staircase.

Nakor ascends the staircase and finds himself in a small barracks, full of cots, footlockers, and blasphemous tapestries. He spots a lone figure snoring loudly on one of the cots, and decides to take a gamble. Dawning a wet, discarded robe, Nakor prods the sleeping fellow awake and tries to bluff him into thinking Nakor is one of them. When the fellow seems suspicious, Nakor stabs him into unconsciousness. When the others arrive, a search of the room makes it clear this tower is a temple dedicated to Myrkul, Lord of Bones and former god of the dead. Cain is surprised to find its priests still active, since Myrkul was
known to have been slain during the Time of Troubles and his portfolio assumed by Kelemvor.

Through a curtained archway lays the shrine itself. A blood-covered sacrificial altar sits before a massive skull that dominates the wall, its eyes lit by fist-sized gems that gleam from the torchlight. Cain suspects a secret in the shrine, and hauls the unconscious cultist into the room and onto the altar.  Loosening the tourniquet he had tied earlier, the cultist's lifeblood spills onto the altar. With his death, the jaws of the skull open to reveal a shaft leading upwards, through which the mystical energy from the pit below continues to flow.

Wearing one of the cultist's robes, Nakor climbs the runged shaft and peeks through an open trapdoor onto the roof of the tower. There, at the key intersections of a mystical sigil, five priests of Myrkul are performing a strange ritual using the powerful energies torn from the undead. One of the priests notices Nakor watching and moves to investigate. A ruse succeeds in luring two of the priests below where they are swiftly killed by ambush. The adventurers decide the time has come to charge the rooftop, and they spill out of the trapdoor ready for battle.

A furious battle ensues, as the leader of the cultists, a skull-headed Horned Harbinger of Myrkul, rallies his brethren to fight. Cain and Nakor trap one of the priests between them, Rolen falls prey to his own Ki-powered stunning fist, and Fargrim once again finishes the battle with his powerful warhammer. A
staggering blow crushes the ribcage of the lead cultist and he stumbles to the edge of the roof. He curses the adventurers, telling them:

"You will pay for interrupting the reawakening! But it is too late! My master will stir, the transference will take! I curse you interloper, curse you with knowledge of the fate of the world when the Lord of Bones returns! His wrath shall be terrible!"

Strong-willed Rolen manages to resist the curse, but the others are filled with visions of apocalyptic horror: burned towns, slave camps, undead armies covering the land, and more.

"I curse you!" the Horned Harbinger continues, "I curse you with the knowledge of where your doom shall originate, and the knowledge that you will be too weak to stop it!"

With that, the Horned Harbinger throws himself off the roof and to his death.

With the inhabitants of the terrible tower slaughtered, the party makes its way outside with a brief stop for Nakor and Cain to each take one of the massive gems from the giant skull. The group decides to rest for another night and then seek a way off this island and back to civilization.
Director's Commentary (May 9, 2013)

This was the final session of the initial adventure, one that was planned in such a way that it would be easy to continue playing if the players wanted, or instead deliver a sense of accomplishment if they wanted to call things good there.  Happily, everyone was keen to continue on.

The ghoul-Borya trick was a fun and effective one, though afterwards I felt a little bad about it as it might have seemed mean-spirited to kill off a player's PC just a couple of sessions after he left when I had given him an open invitation to return.  Fortunately, the player never seemed to have hard feelings about it when told what had happened.

I thought the imagery of the tower of bones, the pit of writhing undead, and the rooftop ceremony all came across well.  These sessions were all run while The Wife and Boomer were in Canada, so I had a lot of free time to come up with little details.  The giant gems in the skull were a little homage to the famous book cover; the PCs who stole them ended up losing them after falling unconscious in the hands of slavers in a subsequent session, but it's probably good they did: although each gem was worth about 1,000 gp, they were cursed such that they would attract undead and result in a daily loss of Constitution if voluntarily given away.

I had forgotten that Cain basically murdered a helpless and injured cultist on the altar in order to reveal the secret passageway; the character has not been so evil since :)

The curse of the Horned Harbinger and the nightmarish visions are, of course, the beginnings of the campaign's major theme.  At this point, I was still wrestling with exactly where all of these problems would originate in Faerun and whether/how I could incorporate the Castle Whiterock boxed set I had dropped over $ 100 on some time in the past and never managed to use.  More on that in future posts.  I've always liked undead menaces and the incorporation of the excellent pantheon of deities in the Forgotten Realms, so using the backstory of Myrkul fit in quite well.

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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Pool of Radiance [Books]

As a teenager, I spent countless hours playing Pool of Radiance with Nebraska Steve.  It probably served as my introduction to the Forgotten Realms, and I still believe the AD&D Gold Box games had a combat system that was the most faithful to what tabletop D&D combats are like using miniatures.  Reading the novel brought back so many of those memories, as the locations in the book (Sokol Keep, Valhingen Graveyard, the Stojanow River, etc.) were virtual locations I spent many real-world hours trying to clear of virtual monsters.  The novel's story still holds up well and would serve as the premise for a solid campaign: the city of Phlan was attacked by dragons years ago, rendering all but a small portion of it a rubble-strewn wasteland that was undefensible and soon occupied by thousands of orcs, gnolls, and other foul creatures.  A small portion of the city, Civilized Phlan, is safe behind walls, but the task of reclaiming the rest of the city must proceed block-by-block, and much of the work falls to adventurers hired by the city's governing council.  The novel has three protagonists:  Shal, a wizard whose master was recently murdered; Ren O' the Blade, a ranger/thief whose lover was killed a year prior; and Tarl, a newly-minted cleric of Tyr.  The three are each in Phlan for their own reasons, but find themselves manipulated by a member of the Council to further his quest for power.  Along the way, they learn of the mysterious Lord of the Ruins who has actively blocked Civilized Phlan from expanding and who is deriving power from a mystical pool.  This is more traditional meat-and-potatoes D&D-style fantasy than other FR books, but still quite enjoyable if you're in the right frame of mind.

Thirty Days of Graphic Novels, Day Fifteen: "Spider-Man: Fear Itself"

Thoughts about Spider-Man: Fear Itself:

1.  Silver Sable, as always, is cool.

2.  MJ calls Peter on his BS about how he can't reveal to his Aunt May that he's secretly Spider-Man because "the shock could kill her."  It's about time.

3.  Super-villain # 1 is "White Ninja", a central-casting ninja that can turn invisible.  Blah!

4.  Super-villain # 2, The Baroness, has stolen her name from G.I. Joe.  Second, and I was gob-smacked to see this, The Baroness is actually the mind of Baron Zemo transported into a female body!  See attached picture as proof.

5.  Does is make sense that Baron Zemo, thought dead since a very early issue of The Avengers, would bide his time for years until a scientist discovered crystals which induce fear, and then plot to launch those crystals in rockets over Earth's capital cities so that, by taking advantage of the mass hysteria that results, he can take over the world?  I guess so.

6.  No, it does not!  Later ret-conning establishes that The Baroness was simply a woman obsessed with Zemo's legacy and pretending to be him (later, she marries his son).  Whew!

7.  Do not be confused; none of this has absolutely anything to do with the big crossover.

Monday, August 6, 2012

House of Serpents [Books]

House of Serpents is the title of the collection of a Forgotten Realms trilogy, Venom's Taste, Viper's Kiss, and Vanity's Brood.  Two things make this trilogy really stand out from other FR novels.  First, the trilogy is set primarily in the city of Hlondeth, ruled by Yuan-ti (snake-humanoids) and populated by thousands of human slaves.  The author, Lisa Smedman, does an excellent job depicting Yuan-ti culture and makes Hlondeth far different than a standard quasi-medieval fantasy city.  Second, the books' protagonist (a rogue named Arvin) is psionic.  I've always kept psionics at arms-length in gaming as I've never really been sure how or if they fit with traditional fantasy, but Smedman integrates them quite well and helps envision in a cinematic way some of the various attack and defense powers.  Arvin himself isn't the most interesting character, but Smedman's descriptions of psionic combat are interesting and different.

All in all, House of Serpents is a nice change of pace and leads me to want to set some D&D adventures in Hlondeth.  (if any of my players are reading this, stock up on snake anti-venom!).

Thirty Days of Graphic Novels, Day 14: "The Death of Superman"

Man, consistently blogging every day is hard!  The keen observers amongst you may note this is my second "Thirty Days of Graphic Novel" on the same day, partially making up for a lack of posts over the weekend.  I don't know how people like Siskoid do it.

Anyway, let's talk The Death of Superman, collecting one of the most famous Superman story arcs ever, in which the Big Blue Boyscout gets killed by newcomer Doomsday.   Today, a major media-grabbing storyline like this probably would be published as its own series with crossovers from about a zillion other comics.  Here, though, only the Superman titles and a single issue of Justice League of America are involved.  I remember as a teenager anxiously turning the pages to see what happened to Blue Beetle (my favorite super hero) and being displayed at how brutally he gets beaten by Doomsday (not as brutally treated as his later being shot in the head by Maxwell Lord, but then that never happened now . . . I think).

It really is an epic slugfest that continues across six issues, and Doomsday certainly appears as an unstoppable, bloodthirsty juggernaut.  He remains completely a cypher however, with no known origin, motivation, or personality.  This gets explored later on, but at the time he's solely a killing machine; it's simplistic, but the high pace is certainly maintained.  The bottom line is it's standard super hero storytelling from the time period, just with an unusual and quite memorable ending.

I will say I love the cover of Superman #75, a version of which is used for the collection.

Thirty Days of Graphic Novels, Day Thirteen: "Boneyard, Volume One"

Boneyard has a really nice feel to it.  It's humorous and oftentimes silly, but the characters are interesting enough you want to keep reading to see what happens next.  In this first volume (collecting issues 1-4 of the series), Michael Paris arrives in a remote village named Raven Hollow in order to dispose of property he received in an inheritance.  The property, however, turns out to be a cemetery inhabited by a collection of supernatural  archetypes like a vampire, a skeleton, a werewolf, and more.  For a mysterious reason, the mayor of Raven Hollow is adamant that Paris sell it to the village, and this mystery drives the plot.  There's actually some pretty good action scenes, but as I mentioned it's a very funny book with a few laugh-out loud moments.  The clear, uncluttered black-and-white artwork fits well and I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing volume two.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Thirty Days of Graphic Novels, Day Twelve "Fallen Angel: Reborn"

I bought this solely because it features Illyria from Angel, and as The Wife will testify, I am a compulsive purchaser of all things Angel and Buffy.  Fallen Angel: Reborn collects a four issue series featuring Illyria magically teleported to the city of Bete Noir, which is apparently protected by the book's title character, Liandra.  Illyria is hot on the tail of the ornaments of power she wielded in her ancient god-like form because she has been told that if she recovers them, she can recover her god-hood.  She has the standard comic book fight with Liandra and then the standard comic book team-up.  I was actually really impressed with how well the book handled Illyria, getting her personality right and adding to the character's backstory through some amazing artwork of her grotesque, Cthulhu-like godly form in her native dimension.  I'm not sure if this series would mean anything to non-Illyria fans, and it didn't really sell me on a need to pick up the main Fallen Angel series, but it's decent for what it is.

The Bradford Players Present . . . Walker in the Wastes [Cthulhu]

I just finished listening to the Bradford Players' audio recording of their 23 sessions playing Walker in the Wastes, a Call of Cthulhu campaign.  My thoughts after finishing are fairly similar to what I thought listening to them play through The King in Yellow (here): they are an absolutely charming and hilarious group, and it would be a real joy listening to them play a game that has an intentionally silly aspect like Paranoia or Gamma World.  For a game like Call of Cthulhu, however, their play style is like watching an otherwise excellent horror movie on a laptop under bright lights at 1 p.m. in a raucous cafeteria--in other words, the mood that the media specializes in loses all of its effect.


It's hard to know what to think of the Walker in the Wastes campaign itself, as unlike The King in Yellow I haven't read it.  Some aspects seem pretty cool, as it sounds like the initial part is very immersive and portrays the idea of isolation and survival against the elements well.  Other aspects seem to drag on and be rather railroad-y.  The Keeper faced a veritable mutiny halfway through the campaign when some mind-control was going on, though part of that is attributable to players acting on information their characters wouldn't have.  Similarly, there was no real conclusion to the entire campaign because one of the players was tired and two of the players weren't persuaded by the necessity of conducting the big ritual that was supposed provide the dramatic climax (the PCs were supposed to have to soak these mystical tablets in at least 10 pints of blood and then provide a human sacrifice to keep an evil god from arising).  That part was pretty disappointing, and again I think part of the responsibility lays with a campaign that didn't provide enough justification and part with players who just didn't really buy in to the game and role-play different personalities well.  The danger level of the campaign is also hard to gauge, as the PCs triumphed through pretty much every combat with little danger or SAN loss, but again the Keeper was rather generous and even gave the players special tokens to use to re-roll results.  (She was also one of those Keepers who calls for skill rolls to find clues and make progress, but has no idea what to do if no one succeeds; more experience with flexible story-telling and improvisation would help a lot there).

Listening to the audio games is a nice way to experience some Cthulhu campaigns I'll probably never get a chance to play, and as always I'm appreciative to the Bradford Players for taking the time to consistently make their high-quality recordings accessible.  I think I'm going to sample another group next time to see if I can get that real horror storytelling that I want to learn how to direct effectively, but chances are I'll end up downloading Horror on the Orient Express or Beyond the Mountains of Madness from the Bradford Players sooner or later!

Realms Toowoomba Recap # 2 [RPG]

RealmsToowoomba Campaign

Session # 2 Recap

[27 Ches 1372]

The early hours of morning bring the promise of a warm, sunny day to the shipwrecked survivors of Waukeen's Grace. Shortly after the survivors rise, however, ominous gray clouds suddenly form, seemingly from nowhere. The wind picks up, rain starts to fall heavily, and once again the survivors find themselves in the midst of a terrible storm. From the partial shelter of their lean-to, the survivors notice a glowing object moving quickly towards shore from the ocean. Seconds later, the object can be made out: a ship in flames!

While Borya stays behind to guard young Tazi and the injured Illanus, Rolen and Nakor head for where the ship is likely to run aground on shore. As they walk, figures emerge from the treeline and lurch across the beach and into the water.  They half swim and half float towards the burning hulk, and even in the darkness the disfigured, distorted bodies are visible in the light reflected from the flames. They are walking corpses, veritable nightmares given form. Gathering his courage, Nakor shoots an arrow into the back of one of them, and it doesn't even notice.

Aboard the ship, all is chaos. Flames lick at the main deck and the masts, passengers run screaming back and forth, and more of the monstrosities carry out their mission of destruction. Two adventurers fight side by side to survive: Cain, a young cleric of Kossuth the Flamelord, and Fargrim, a seasoned Dwarven
Battlerager from the Northern city of Mirabar. They decide that jumping into the water is safer than staying onboard, and plunge in. Fargrim manages to barely keep afloat by treading water, but Cain, already badly hurt by one of the creatures, begins to sink under the weight of his heavy armor.

Fortunately, Rolen and Nakor decide to intervene. Tying a rope to a large piece of driftwood, Rolen floats out to where Cain is flailing and together the two make it back to shore, as does Fargrim. As the ship crashes into shore and is beached, a roiling red mist begins to roll in from out of the treeline, quickly covering everything in its path. The mist puts out the flames, but seems to bring the dead passengers on-board the ship back into a mockery of life. The deathless abominations throw themselves off the ship, reckless of the fall, and begin to march toward the interior of the island. The adventurers decide to engage two of the creatures in battle. The fighting is difficult, as Rolen's punches, Fargrim's warhammer, and Cain's mace have limited effect. Eventually, the two creatures are returned to eternal sleep, with the only serious injury to the adventurers resulting from Fargrim losing his grip during a powerful backswing and knocking himself unconscious with his own weapon.

With the battle over and the remaining undead having disappeared into the treeline, the adventurers compare notes and realize they have similar stories to tell. Nakor decides to search the beached ship for anything of value. He narrowly avoids falling through a cracked portion of the deck and reaches the hold. Inside, he finds spices, tapestries, and other bulk goods along with a hidden coin purse. He pockets the latter and returns to the others. Nakor and Rolen lead Fargrim and Cain to the lean-to, where they discover that Borya is missing. Tazi claims the warrior heard a sound from the forest and went to investigate, but never returned.

The four adventurers decide to head into the treeline and towards the mysterious tower they can discern further on. With Rolen leading, however, they lose their way. Rolen tries to climb a tree in order to get his bearings, but slips on the wet bark and falls, cracking his skull on a rock. Fortunately, Cain is able to draw upon the powers granted by Kossuth to heal the wounds with a flash of divine heat. Fargrim decides to climb the tree and is surprisingly spry; he spots both the tower toward the center of the island and a small wisp of smoke emanating to the south. The group decides to heads toward the smoke, but again the dark interior of the island confuses them and they become lost, realizing their mistake only when they reach the coastline and have to follow it back to the lean-to. Stymied and exhausted, they decide to rest for the evening.

[28 Ches 1372]

Once again, the adventurers trek into the jungle. This time, they adopt the clever plan of tying decorative belts found washed up on shore around trees to mark their movements. Some hours later, the group comes upon a long trench that curves out of sight to either side of them. Rolen throws a log into the bottom of the trench and the group watches in horror as the wood is devoured by a swarm of fast-moving fist-sized leeches. Nakor, however, is confident he can simply jump across, but his estimates of his own leaping prowess are sorely in error and he falls right into the bottom of the trench! The blood-leeches are on him in a flash; although his allies manage to pull him out quickly with a rope, Nakor is in trouble as one of the leeches bites right into his jugular! Flames shoot from Cain's palms, scorching both Nakor and one of the leeches. Rolen tries to punch one of them, but his punch inadvertently hits Nakor right in the solar-plexus, knocking him unconscious. Things go from bad to worse when Fargrim tries to grab and throw one of the leeches off of Nakor; the leech clamps on to Fargrim instead, and the dwarf trips, hits his head, and falls unconscious as well! Eventually the comedy of errors ends with the slugs destroyed, but Cain is forced to expend more healing spells.

The group decides that an alternative to jumping must be found. Working together, they search for a tall tree and Fargrim chops it down with an axe.  Stripping the tree of branches, they drag it over to the trench and laboriously stand it up and then tip it over, forming a bridge across. With careful use of ropes to avoid falling, the four adventurers manage to traverse the trench.  It's been an exhausting day, however, and several of the adventurers are still wounded. They decide to rest for the night and begin the next day's assault on the mysterious tower in better fighting shape.
Director's Commentary (March 28, 2013)

This was a memorably hilarious session.  The PCs simply had the worst luck: Rolen fell while trying to climb a tree and almost died from his wounds, Nakor rolled terribly while trying to jump a ditch full of monstrous blood-leeches and was lucky to survive, Rolen then tried to punch one of the leeches off of Nakor but rolls a natural 1 instead and knocks Nakor into negatives, Fargrim tried to assist and also rolls a natural 1 and the critical fumble card he draws knocks him unconscious too (and the latter was incredibly bad luck, as the character had drawn the exact same card earlier in the session while fighting undead!).  Terrible luck, but great fun, and amazing that no one actually died with rolls so poor.

I liked how this session started, with the flaming ships crashing onto the beach with two PCs trapped aboard.  Cain established right from the get go that with heavy armor, there was no way he was going to do anything athletic, and that has remained constant throughout the campaign (as has his indispensability to the party with his healing spells).  Nakor also started a memorable streak: finding treasure, sneaking it into his pack, and not telling the others!  The player who ran Borya in the first session didn't return, so I had a little fun with the character as an NPC in a few sessions' time.  One of the things I liked about this adventure was that, early on, it made the PCs see how skills that seem somewhat useless at first (Knowledge: Nature, Survival, Climb, etc.) can have a big impact on success.

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