Friday, December 27, 2013

Realms Toowoomba Session # 38 [RPG]

[Flashback to 5 Kythorn 1372]

After several hours' ride, Markus realizes he's approaching the eastern edge of the Evermoors. In the distance, the tightly-packed trees of the Silverwood provide a welcome respite from the dreary grey moor. However, one last obstacle remains in Markus' path, as a quartet of rotting humanoid forms suddenly burst up from the ground. At first glance, they look like mere zombies, but the writhing mass of worms crawling in and through their skulls reveal them to be something far worse: Spawn of Myrkul!

Before Markus can react, one of the abominations spits a worm that flies through the air and lands on the adventurer's face. In seconds, it has crawled to the back of Markus' head and started to burrow its way into his skull! The arrival of other creatures spook Markus' steed. After enduring painful scratches from their bony claws, the horse rears up and gallops at full speed back to the west. Markus and his mount quickly leave the undead behind, but the damage has already been done. Markus feels the worm pierce his skin, and then start to gnaw through his skull! When the pain stops, the real danger starts: the supernatural worm has attached itself to his brain, and is draining away his intelligence and life force! Markus tries to remove the creature with his magic but fails, and as he grows more and more dazed and confused he opts for a cunning but spectacularly dangerous last resort: he sends his snake familiar to chase after the worm! Plunging its narrow head through the same wound in Markus' skull, the snake darts forth and clamps down on the worm, tearing it free and saving Markus' life. The wounded swordsman manages to stay on his mount long enough to spur the creature to head to the northeast, and this time escape from the Evermoors is unimpeded as the adventurer reaches the outer edge of the Silverwood. Danger remains, however, as Markus' mount did not escape the unliving grotesqueries unscathed . . .

[Flashback to 7 Kythorn 1372]

Ralkin, Flindle, and Katanya wake in the morning after an uneventful night's rest and continue on their journey.

[13 Kythorn 1372]

In the extradimensional space anchored above the site of a massive battle, Terreck proudly displays the spine of Aloysius which he has wrapped around his walking stick. Bearos is disgusted by the sight, but Fargrim takes it in stride: "interesting, very interesting", he says.

Meanwhile, down below, Sha'dar sets off north to find the bolted horses and Ellywick. Eve continues conversing with Mellia. The paladin of Ilmater asks the sorceress if the group has any other injured persons that need tending do. Mellia mentions that Bearos, Fargrim, and Terreck are nearby. She says that, although Terreck is a hobgoblin, he has helped the group fight slavers and is not necessarily evil like many of that race. Mellia calls for the trio to come down.

Fargrim and Bearos climb down first. Fargrim is wary of the newcomer, noting that "being trustworthy will get you killed in this place." Eve replies that her mission here is to hunt undead. Mellia speaks highly of Fargrim's bravery and skill in fighting against the slaving band led by the deceased Grim.

When Terreck climbs down, a cascade of dramatic events come quickly. Mellia sees the ghoulish walking stick wielded by the hobgoblin and is horrified, shouting at Terreck to explain himself. Terreck says he was only being true to the deceased gnome's acquisitive spirit, and Fargrim adds that "it is merely a spine on the end of a stick" and not something to get upset about. Mellia continues to vehemently argue that Terreck has acted in a grossly inappropriate way, and should think about leaving the group. Cain remains laying on the ground where Eve healed him and remains quiet, if perhaps slightly bemused by the drama. Eve, however, interprets Terreck's action quite differently. After putting some distance between herself and the group, she whistles to summon her pegasus mount (named Percy) and demands that the entire group drop their weapons, lay down on the ground, and surrender themselves for transport to Silverymoon where they will face trial. Spotting Sha'dar nearby, he orders the elf to do the same.

Eve's demands are initially met with uniform resistance. Fargrim defends Terreck and says there is no injustice in taking from the dead. Mellia, although aghast at Terreck's actions, tells Eve that what the hobgoblin has done may be disgraceful, but it is not illegal, and that there is certainly no reason to arrest everyone for his actions. Eve repeats her warnings multiple times and says that if the adventurers do not immediately comply with her orders, they will face "trial by combat." Mellia calls for a peaceful way to resolve matters, arguing that surrendering weapons would be tantamount to suicide in the Evermoors.

Eve gives the adventurers another chance to comply, and then, astride her flying mount, charges into battle with lance at the ready. Cain tries to deter Eve with a wall of flame, but the paladin flies right through it. Terreck quickly turns himself invisible, but Eve dives towards his last known position, and, with Tymora's luck, impales the hobgoblin through the throat, killing the already-wounded adventurer instantly! Cain remains laying on the ground, ostensibly complying with Eve's demands, while Fargrim drops his weapons but challenges Eve to attack. Mellia sits on a nearby rock, but repeats her assertion that she will never voluntarily be bound. Cain tries to talk Mellia into surrendering, but Mellia replies that Eve must be insane. Sha'dar tries to parlay with Eve, but meets with little interest. Soon, the elf decides to comply with Eve's orders, partially out of a desire to be close to such a marvelous creature like a pegasus.

Interpreting Mellia's actions as a failure to comply, Eve charges towards her and smacks her hard on the head with the blunt side of his lance. Mellia responds by launching unerring spheres of pure force and rays of fire, and then turns invisible. Ellywick stumbles into the camp from the north, witnesses the strange scene, and then decides discretion is the better part of valor and withdraws. Cain remains passive, and eventually agrees to give Eve all of his weapons. Sha'dar does the same and starts playing fetch with his hound. Fargrim climbs up into the extradimensional space, climbs down and picks up one of his weapons seconds after Eve has picked up the other, and then climbs back up. It remains unclear whether the dwarf plans to fight or not.

The battle of wills (and combat prowess) between Eve and Mellia continues, as the paladin tries to have her mount sniff out the invisible sorceress' position. Mellia manages to move with expert stealth and climbs up the rope to the extradimensional space. Seeing the swinging rope and realizing her prey has temporarily eluded her, Eve shouts up that she is willing to wait them out and that if they do not turn themselves over voluntarily, she will have no choice but to kill them.

In the space of just a few short hours, the two newest members of the adventuring party have been killed, and now a dangerous stalemate has begun. Who will be the first to crumble, either through concession or defeat?

Director's Commentary (Jan. 8, 2016)

This was one of those unforgettable sessions that makes gaming worthwhile!

Spawn of Myrkul
First, there was the encounter between Markus and the Spawn of Myrkul (renamed from "Spawn of Kyuss" in the Monster Manual II).  These nasty undead spit worms that crawl into one's brain cavity and drain intelligence.  When Markus got hit by one, and didn't manage to remove it immediately, his intelligence score began to slowly but steadily drop towards coma and death.  Since he was out there all alone with a worm in his brain, we were all certain he was dead.  But Markus' player hit on one last plan, sending his snake familiar into the same hole in his head that the snake crawled into to try to ferret it out--the plan was doomed to familiar given the enormously high AC I gave the worm, but a natural 20 is a natural 20 and the attack succeeded!  Markus lived to fight another day.

Just like in the Garden of Eden, Eve caused a whole host of troubles!
Second, the phrase (spoken with a German accent) "Drop your weapons and lay on the ground" is remembered with shudders by many in the gaming group.  This was the constant command of Eve the Paladin when faced with an adventurer's spine wrapped around a stick thanks to Terreck.  All hell broke loose and eventually resulted in the first fatal PVP combat I can remember in a long, long time of gaming.  Although Terreck cleverly turned invisible, Eve knew the hobgoblin's last known location and rolled a critical hit (with double damage from a charging lance) and instantly killed him.  This was met with gasps both in-game and in real life, and I think probably led to some personal animosity between the players running the respective characters involved.  I think Eve was one of those Paladins that make all Paladins seem virtually unplayable, but I have to give the player credit for sticking to his RP guns.

Tune in next time for the even-more dramatic conclusion of the stand-off!

Next Recap

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Communist Manifesto [Norton Critical Edition]

So now that I’ve finished the Worth Literary Classics, my next project intended to get me to read something besides genre fiction is to start going through Norton Critical Editions.  A wide variety of classic books in literature, history, and philosophy have been published as NCEs, and the reason I’m a big fan is that they come with thorough introductions and a nice selection of background materials such as extracts from scholarly articles on the main text.  Instead of reading and forgetting, you’re revisiting the text through several and sometimes divergent angles, which is a great way to think more deeply about it. 

I’ve already picked up a handful of random NCEs at used book stores, and to get the project started I chose a relatively short one: Karl Marx’ The Communist Manifesto.  The editor, Frederic Bender, does a fantastic job setting the Manifesto in its historical context as a piece written at the request of and designed to serve as a statement of principles for a small group of activists named the Communist League in 1848.  Largely ignored upon publication, it wasn’t until a couple of decades later that “Marx’s little pamphlet” came to be seen as an influential and important exposition of the tenets of communism.  Bender’s introduction also clearly explains that the Manifesto’s role as a short essay to declare Marx’s (and the League’s) views, and convert others to the cause, meant that it was not intended to serve as a full theoretical argument for communism.  This can be seen by the rhetorical strategies employed and the devotion of one section to explaining why other perceived alternatives (varieties of communist and socialist organizations, now mostly long forgotten) were inferior or mistaken.

There were several things that I found quite useful in this edition in improving my understanding of Marx and The Communist Manifesto. First, a better understanding that Marx was not advocating the complete abolition of private property, but instead the abolition of private control over the means of production (p. 68).  A couple of the scholarly essays after the text (one by Michael Harrington and one by Bertram Wolfe) involved quite interesting discussions of Marx’s often-unclear (“schizophrenic” according on one writer) views on whether the proletarian revolution could be achieved through democratic means (on the whole, Marx seems inclined towards democratic means in countries that had advanced democratic systems like England and the U.S., while also acknowledging that in most other countries other means will be necessary for the proletariat to achieve control).  An essay by Rondel Davidson persuasively argues that much of the historical argument in the Manifesto is indebted to the work of a thinker I had never heard of before, Victor Considérant; however, Marx and Considérant had very different views on how the problems of exploited workers should be solved.  The book includes some very brief extracts from works by Lenin and Trotsky, and I wish this would have been an aspect fleshed out more; the various historical strands, movements, and counter-movements in the history of communism are not clear to me, and I can’t understand the difference between a Bolshevik, a Trotskyite, a Stalinist, etc.  (I suppose I could do a lot of Googling and some Wikipedia-ing, but that seems like too much work!) 

I suppose my final takeaway, and one of the essays (I forget which) talks about this point as well, involves Marx’ description of the state of the worker in the Manifesto as, of course, a very evocative and grim one, such that the reader can’t help but feel sympathy and a desire for justice.  How much of this alienated and downtrodden state of labor is contingent in terms of the evolution of capitalism, trade unionism, the legal system, geography, etc.?  In other words, has something Marx seemed to deride as simply stalling the inevitable proletariat revolution, labor reform, ameliorated the condition of the “working man” to such a degree that no revolution is necessary?  Of course, even if working conditions have improved dramatically in some contexts, the problems of vast income inequality have only increased, along with additional problems of privatization, corporatization, environmental injustice, etc.

Anyway, much to think about and a good sign that the NCE project was a good one for me to pursue!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Realms Toowoomba Session # 37 [RPG]

[Flashback to 5 Kythorn 1372]

After an uninterrupted night's sleep, Markus spurs his horse at full speed to the east, hoping to escape the dreaded Evermoors. Danger, however, follows in his wake.

[Flashback to 6 Kythorn 1372]

Ralkin leaves Startop Keep and catches up to Katanya and her brother Flindle on the trail down the mountain. They are relieved to have the kenku's assistance, citing safety in numbers. The trio reach the bottom of the mountain and begin the journey east without incident, camping as night falls.

[13 Kythorn 1372]

The night passes uneventfully, but just before dawn danger arrives. Patrolling the southern perimeter of the camp, Mellia fails to hear the approach of another frost giant until it is almost too late. Unknown to the adventurers, the frost giant, Volstagg Ortleson, discovered the charred corpse of his brother and receive permission from his leader, Princess Gerti Ortleson, to follow the obvious tracks in the snow of the "murderers" and to take the white dragon Rynnarvyx for assistance. Volstagg has difficulty making out the tracks of the adventurers once they leave the area covered in snow, but sufficient moonlight exists to lead him in the right direction. In a small clearing hidden by the copse of trees, Mellia uses a spell to whisper to everyone that they may soon be under attack and then turns herself invisible.

Volstagg brings forth a torch that gives off a flickering blue-white "flame" but no heat, and searches the ground for tracks again. Looking directly at the copse where the party is hidden, he calls out a challenge to the "fire warlocks" who killed his brother and then whistles loudly. As the adventurers in the camp ready themselves for battle, Volstagg draws a massive battle axe and then charges into the darkened copse, knocking over small trees in his path. He spots Terreck first and his axe cuts deeply into the hobgoblin. Terreck manages to stay alive long enough for the invisible Mellia to send her familiar to deliver Terreck a spell to turn him invisible as well.

Aloysius is struck while trying to sneak away from the giant, and stumbles behind a fallen tree. The gnome hurtles a ray of magickal fire at Volstagg, but the enraged giant, shouting again about "murderous fire warlocks", charges the gnome and sinks his axe deep into Aloysius' chest, killing the adventurer instantly! About the same time, Volstagg's companion, Rynnarvyx arrives, and breathes a cone of painful ice and snow at Cain and the adventurers near him.  Ellywick flees in mortal terror, as do Cain's and Terreck's mounts. With Aloysius dead and Mellia and Terreck concealed by invisibility, Cain seems to be the likeliest "fire warlock" in sight, and Volstagg charges across the campsite. Soon, between the giant's axe and the dragon's freezing breath, the cleric of Kossuth has fallen as well, though his wounds are not quite fatal.

Fargrim ensures that Bearos is well-hidden and then engages in battle. Between Fargrim's greataxe, Sha'dar's arrows, and Mellia's fire spells, Volstagg is worn down and finally collapses to the ground. Rynnarvyx continues to circle and sweep down on Fargrim, biting and clawing at the dwarf who is heroically fighting the dragon on his own, as Sha'dar and his hound flee to the east to escape the dragon's attacks. Fargrim manages to keep his feet and his courage, surviving just long enough to take advantage of a desperate escape attempt launched by Mellia. Still invisible, the diviner again creates a hidden extradimensional space for herself, Terreck (who has brought Aloysius' body), Bearos, the unconscious Cain, and Fargrim. Confused by the sudden disappearance of her foes and clever illusions cast by Terreck, Rynnarvyx picks up Volstagg's body with her claws and flies speedily to the southwest.

While the others hide inside the extradimensional space, Sha'dar has done his best to conceal himself, his elven hound, and his mount in a small culvert covered by branches and canvas. He hears the clink of armor and notices a figure approaching on foot, however: a human woman in early middle-age with reddish hair, dressed in full plate mail and wearing a massive sword. The stranger spots Sha'dar's hiding space and challenges him to come forth. Sha'dar does so warily, and inquires about the woman's purpose in coming to the Evermoors. The woman, who gives her name as Eve, explains that she has come seeking evil and the undead. Such a purpose accords well with Sha'dar's own, and he leads the newcomer to the west in search of other survivors of the night's terrible assault.

Inside the extradimensional space, Mellia notices Sha'dar and Eve approach. The diviner climbs down and into view, and greets them both. Upon hearing that there are wounded individuals nearby, Eve offers her abilities as a healer.  When Cain is lowered to the ground, Eve places her hands on the clerics chest and draws out some of his pain, knitting together flesh that has been torn.  Cain comes to consciousness with a start, and noticing the red cord wrapped around his saviour's hand, correct deduces that she is a worshipper of Ilmater, the deity of perseverance and relief of suffering. Sha'dar quickly scouts the rest of the camp, and, calling for Aloysius' cat, is delighted to see it spring out from hiding and jump into his arms.

Meanwhile, hidden and alone in the extradimensional space above, Terreck searches Aloysius' body, taking the gems the gnome had himself taken from an earlier foe. The hobgoblin then proceeds to expertly cut into the corpse and remove its spine, wrapping the grisly trophy around his walking stick.
Director's Commentary (November 7, 2015)

This session began one of the most infamous sequences in the campaign.

First, we have the first PC death of the campaign. Aloysius was a memorable character role-played extremely well by a first time RPGer, but a mad frost giant can deal out a hell of a lot of damage to a gnome wizard in melee!  Character deaths are rough on some players, but I have to say Aloysius's player handled it extremely well and promptly went about creating a new character.  My only regret is that weeks after the session, I was reviewing the rules for large creatures squeezing through areas smaller than them, and I'm not 100% the giant had the movement speed left to actually reach Aloysius.  Sometimes that's the hard part of DMing: a lot of hindsight thinking, especially for decisions (or possible mistakes) that are irrevocable.

Second, the player who ran Aloysius introduced his new character quickly, a Paladin of Ilmater named Eve.  Everything was fine this session, but just wait until next session.  For years the players would cringe when they thought of Eve and her faux-German accent.

Third, that last line about Terreck wrapping Aloysius' spine around his walking stick?  Not going to end well.  This session started an avalanche of PC deaths rolling, and some of them involved PvP.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Planet Stories # 29: Sojan the Swordsman/Under the Warrior Star

The 29th book in the Planet Stories series is unique in that it's a so-called "double feature", featuring two "sword and planet" novels by different authors back to back. The elements of the sword and planet genre are aptly summarized in the introduction: an earthman is somehow transported to another planet that contains a mix of futuristic and ancient technology, gets swept up in a war or rebellion, and falls instantly in love with an alien princess. The two novels in this collection fit quite comfortably into this pattern. The first novel, Sojan the Swordsman is actually a collection of short stories written by Michael Moorcock when he was a teenager. Unfortunately, it shows. They are about as flat and one-dimensional as possible, and there is absolutely nothing novel or memorable about Sojan. Sometimes it really is best to let juvenalia stay forgotten! The contrast with the second novel by Joe R. Lansdale, Under the Warrior Star, couldn't be greater. Although Lansdale follows the same formula, he writes with verve and enough originality to keep the pages turning. The alien world he creates, full of trees the size of mountains and a menace that is quite Cthulhuesque, is used as the setting for some quite good action scenes. The characters are still not deep, but they are serviceable. One doesn't see a lot of sword and planet fiction these days; let's hope newcomers weren't turned away by Sojan

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sense and Sensibility [Worth Press]

It's interesting how movies based on books change your perceptions of those books.  When I read Harry Potter now, I picture Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, etc.  I've read Sense and Sensibility before and never had any particular affection for the characters of Edward and Colonel Brandon.  But now that I picture Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman, respectively, the choices of Elinor and Marianne make a little more sense.  Anyway, I continue to find Austen's writing quite charming and affable.  It's a great picture into a particular period in English history's obsession with wealth when it comes to marriage among the idle gentry.  Although I've now read each of Austen's books a couple of times over my life, I have to confess that they tend to blur together in my mind: young female leads of the lower gentry (often sisters) entangled in romantic dramas that turn out for the best in the end.  But that's okay: Batman stops the villains and Buffy slays the monsters in issue after issue and episode after episode, and I don't complain.

The Worth Press edition of Sense and Sensibility comes with four essays.  "Modern Interpretations" by John Wiltshire contains a very interesting discussion of how literary critics have offered different views on whether Austen favours Elinor's "sense" (wisdom) or Marianne's "sensibility" (passion).  The distinction between the two characters is, of course, the theme of the book and so this essay is well worth reading.  "Regency Life" by Maggie Lane discusses the landed gentry and issues of class during Austen's time period, and then turns to the aesthetic appreciation for the "picturesque", a term which had a particular relation to the works of William Gilpin.  Caroline Sanderson's "Geographical Settings" takes the reader through the various fictional and real-world locations the book is set.  Finally, "A Modern Perspective" by Josephine Ross, offers a somewhat rambling defence of the book.

So that's the last Worth Press edition in the black faux-leather binding that I know of.  The fifteen volumes make a nice collection on my shelves, and blogging about them was a good way to get me to read something more than genre fiction.  My next project along the same vein is to start collecting Norton Critical Editions, and I already have a few to read in 2014.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Buffy Comic Project: "Ugly Little Monsters, Part II"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer # 41

Dark Horse (Volume 1, 1998-2003)

Creators:  Tom Fassbender & Jim Pascoe (script); Cliff Richards (pencils); Joe Pimentel (inks)

Setting:  Season Five

T.V. Character Appearances:  Spike, Buffy, Tara, Willow, Xander, Anya, Giles, Dawn,

Major Original Characters:  Coma (demon?)

Summary:  Buffy and Spike run into each other in a junk yard.  Spike tries to tell Buffy about the Ezekiel's Bane amulet he possesses, which he says has the power to amplify emotions.  Buffy isn't interested in hearing about it, however, and pummels him out of frustration from the demonic attack on Dawn's room the night prior.  Spike says he'll sell the amulet to the highest bidder then.  The next day, at the Magic Box, Buffy surprises everyone by announcing she's successfully researched what the three demons were: Avendschrook, manifestations of jealousy.  The gang discuss who could be jealous enough to cast a spell to summon the demons, and Xander suggests Tara.  Meanwhile, Spike sells the Ezekiel's Bane to a mysterious figure wrapped in bandages that he refers to as Coma.  Back at the Magic Box, soon after Willow, Tara, and Dawn arrive, the Avendschrook attack again.  The battle rages until Tara shouts for the demons to leave them alone, and then they all flee.  Xander remains suspicious of Tara, but another possibility is Anya, who was in the basement and angry at Willow utilizing store stock for her spells.  Buffy decides she knows where to go to get answers: Spike.

Review:  The second issue of the Ugly Little Monsters storyline continues the strong beginning.  I like how the issue plays with expectations, such as everyone getting ready to hit the books to research the demons before Buffy announces that she's already done it.  It's nice to see the character come that far over the course of the show.  The plot continues to be sufficiently mysterious to keep turning the pages: who is responsible for summoning the Avendschrook?  Who is the mysterious Coma?  Etc.  Overall characterization and dialogue is also great, and there's not any moments where I thought "So-and-so would never say that."  I'm looking forward to the next one.


*  While gathering books for research, Xander gives a D&D shout-out by referencing the Monster Manual and the Fiend Folio.

*  Although the colouring is fine overall, on the middle panel of page four Tara looks like some kind of ghastly zombie.

*  Some fun references by Xander to Willow and Tara "doing spells", a callback to the last episode of Season Four.

*  Instead of a letters page, the issue has a two-page spread about the graphic novel Creatures of Habit.  The sketches definitely look interesting.

Next Issue

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Hawkeye (Ltd. 1993) [COMICS]

After a stint in the late 1980s and early 1990s headling Avengers Spotlight and West Coast Avengers, Hawkeye was an established, fairly popular character who had never had an on-going, standalone series. Hawkeye was always quick with a quip, but had also developed into a dependable leader and Avengers mainstay.  When West Coast Avengers ended with the "death" of his wife Mockingbird, Hawkeye was given a second limited series in 1993.

The first issue of the series picks up with the Battling Bowman in the remote Canadian Rockies, mourning his wife's death and living off the land.  Hawkeye is hunting caribou when some hunters on snowmobiles, wielding shotguns, go after the same prey.  Apparently this is unfair to the caribou and enrages Hawkeye, so he responds by shooting arrows at them!  One arrow lands in the barrel of a shotgun and it explodes, while another grazes a hunter's ear.  This might be my vegetarian bias, but I'm not 100% convinced the moral difference between bow-hunting caribou and shotgun-hunting caribou is sufficient enough to risk human life; but then I don't run around in purple spandex, so what do I know?  Anyway, after dealing with the hunters, Hawkeye stumbles upon a secret installation of the super-secret organization known only as the Secret Empire!  The Secret Empire is using the base to create lycanthrope-like "constructs" for some nefarious purpose, and one of them escapes and is rescued by Hawkeye (he names it "Rover").  The base is being run by a great villain, The Viper, and her hench-people are the man who taught Hawkeye everything he knows (Trick Shot) and some random super-villainess I've never heard of and would happily never see again (Javelynn; can you guess what type of weapons she uses?).

Before moving forward, this issue came out during the month where the Bullpen Bulletins page contains my favorite line ever:  "The FF movie was delayed till January because of special effects reasons, but the FX are more complex than you think.  The FF movie has a two million budget, and you can bet every dollar of it will be up there on the screen!"  Those of you lucky enough to see the never-released 1994 Fantastic Four movie know just how awesome that statement is.

In issue # 2, Hawkeye takes Rover into a nearby village, during a blizzard, to get some medical help.  He meets up with a Dr. Avery, but the Secret Empire is searching for them.  Hawkeye and Rover decide to return to the Secret Empire's Secret Base to rescue Rover's kin, but they're all killed as the nefarious organization evacuates.  Hawkeye and Rover escape and return to the village, but find it has been levelled as well.  The theme developing here is that Hawkeye is a grizzled moody loner now (Rover aside) and wants to deal with problems himself instead of calling in the Avengers to solve all of his problems.

That's why issue # 3 starts out with Hawkeye calling in War Machine for help?  Well, Rhodey introduces Hawkeye to his tech guy, Mack Mendelson, so that the Aggrieved Archer can get a new costume and upgraded Sky-Cycle.  Hawkeye and Rover then track the Secret Empire to a new base in Baja, which explodes, but not before a new lead will take the two to South America.

"As you've never seen him!  'RAGE!'" proclaims the cover to issue # 4.  Hawkeye and Rover have reached Brasilia and attack another Secret Empire base.  Man, those bad guys just aren't living up to the name.  At the base, the Viper has made dozens of the constructs to sell, and she unleashes them on the hero and his furry partner.  Hawkeye and Rover make a run for it, so Viper sends Trick Shot and Javelynn out to catch them.  Trick Shot ends up saving Hawkeye's life, and mentions in passing that the terminal cancer that was a major theme in his past appearances apparently cleared up.  Nice.  Meanwhile, Javelynn is defeated in just three panels, so the Viper puts on a bog-standard combat suit and gets blown up.  But don't worry, she'll appear again.

Just for fun, look closely at what is described as a "stun arrow" that Hawkeye shoots on page 2; it looks like it results in a massive fireball to me.  Explosions are a way to stun people . . .

Bottom line is that this was a bog-standard, paint-by-numbers superhero story that every Marvel writer could do in their sleep.  The idea of making Hawkeye grim and gritty just didn't work, and lumped him into the trend that every super-hero was falling into during the 1990s.  I do like the idea of further developing Hawkeye's difficulty dealing with Mockingbird's death, but a limited series like this didn't do a good character any justice. Talk about getting shafted!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Men Who Sold the World [TORCHWOOD]

I've been AWOL from Torchwood for a while, in part because I've been busy and swept up in other things, and in part because no one will buy me Children of Earth for Christmas despite it being on my Amazon Wish List for years now!  The very definition of a first-world problem.

Anyway, I finally got around to reading one of the three prequel books to Miracle Day, and I quite enjoyed it.  The Men Who Sold the World stars CIA agent Rex Matheson trying to hunt down some rogue operatives who have stolen alien weaponry from the British (who themselves recovered it from the remnants of the Hub!).  I wasn't particularly looking forward to it since it doesn't involve any of the traditional Torchwood stars (except for some brief flashbacks), but it was actually quite entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny in several spots.  Many of the best lines are hilariously vulgar, and it's a shame I can't repeat them here.  The book also introduces a new villain, a CIA "cleaner" named Mr Wynter.  Wynter is deliciously evil and quite memorable.  All in all, a nice surprise that has rekindled my interest in the show . . .

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Tyrian 2000 [GAMES]

I just finished another free game downloaded from, Tyrian 2000.  This was very much an old-school shooter, as you pilot a single ship through hordes and hordes of enemy spaceships in top-down Galaga style.  That being said, it's quite addictive and the fact that each mission could be played in just a few minutes was perfect for a busy schedule.  I quite liked the ship upgrade feature: the more points you get, the more you can spend on buying better ships, weapons, shields, etc.  But you can always sell something for the same price you bought it, so there's no penalty for trying out different builds if you get stuck on a mission.  I played the game on Normal, and got past most missions on the first try, though though were a few that took 4 or 5 goes.  Despite reading all the "data cubes", I could not comprehend the plot, and the writing was ostensibly serious at points and really goofy at others (floating fruit, for example).  Anyway, a fun shooter at everyone's favorite price.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Beneath a Steel Sky [GAMES]


I was stoked several weeks ago to come across Good Old Games, a site that makes classic computer games available for download in a high-quality and reasonably priced manner (for both PC & Mac).  They even offer some games for free, so I jumped on a copy of Beneath a Steel Sky, a game I remember hearing great things about and seing lots of back-cover comic book ads for back in the day (one of which contains a screen-shot that can really help if you get stuck*).

The premise of BaSS is that you're an outlander in a somewhat dystopian future ruled by corporations and city-states.  A government helicopter lands near where you live in "The Gap," kills all of your family and friends, and kidnaps you.  But on the way back to the city, the helicopter crashes and you have to figure out how to escape and get back home.  Along the way, you uncover dramatic secrets behind why you were taken and who runs the city.

Operationally, the game is a "point and click" adventure with a really good story and a cutting sense of humor.  I will say it was hard, either because I'm out of practice with these types of games or because some of the necessary actions weren't quite intuitive: there were four or five times I finally had to resort to a walkthrough in order to make further progress.**  I also had a bit of a hiccup with the ending,*** but overall it was a really satisfying experience and a memorable game.


*  The ad depicts you swinging from a rope between a ledge and the sign that denotes the security headquarters.  Basically, you need to make a grappling hook by combining a cable with an anchor broken off of a statue.

**  Here's the places where I got stuck (that I can remember):  (1)  You need to put the putty (plastic explosive) on an empty light socket to cause an explosion; (2) You need to use a security card to get past a normal, non-electronic door lock (like how private detectives always use credit cards in old t.v. shows); (3) I overlooked the freakin' tongs hanging on the wall so that I could pick up the flesh in the boiling water); (4) You need to return to LINC space multiple times with the different ID cards, because each card has different features.

*** When you get to the final room and find your father plugged into LINC, the machine lets him go and your father says LINC has lured you here to be his replacement.  Then Joey (Ken) appears.  This is one of the very few places in the game where something bad happens if you linger for a few seconds, but there was a loud conversation going on around me and I couldn't hear what was happening, so I saved it there and came back later.  Every time I loaded up that save game (the only one I had reasonably close to the end), the "bad" ending of the game immediately started up (LINC forces you to take your father's place).  I was only able to watch the "good" ending (where Joey/Ken takes control of LINC) on YouTube.  A bit of an anti-climactic way to end the game :)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Fantasy Football 2013 Mid-Season Update

It's been a bit of a strange season so far.  After blowing out my opponents and getting the highest score in the league in the first two games, I went on to lose four of the last six and current stand at 4-4.  The early explosiveness of having the trio of Mike Vick, DeSean Jackson, and LeSean McCoy turned into a dud as Chip Kelly's offence got seriously derailed.  My early gamble on drafting Rob Gronkowski high hasn't yet paid off, considering he spent the first six or seven games on the bench!  I haven't really had a lot of consistency at any position, as I've started picking up D/STs based on their opponent each week and scouring the free agent list to end up with players who were great the week before I got them and mediocre after.  And really it all starts at QB, as The Wife never tires of reminding me that I could have had Peyton Manning instead of the rotation of Mike Vick, Cam Newton, Terrell Pryor, and Nick Folkes that I've been on.

But despite all of that, I'm still only 1 game behind the division leader!  As I said, a strange season, as parity dominates: no team is better than 5-3 and no team is worse than 3-5.  So with five regular season games left, no one is safe and no one is out of the picture.  If I can squeeze into the top bracket, anything can happen, but I have to admit I'm not feeling optimistic about this team.  Is it a one-and-done "dynasty" or will I be like the Giants and last year's Ravens, who only play well once the playoffs begin?  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sian Suan, Swashbuckling Jedi [RPG]

When I was in law school, Sian Suan was a character I played during a Star Wars role-playing game set in the Knights of the Old Republic era.  The campaign was fantastic, with deep story-telling, some great role-playing, and exciting, edge-of-your-seat action sequences.  The experience is what led me to direct a Clone Wars campaign using the same system (the original WOTC d20 Star Wars rules).  Sian is actually the second character I played in that campaign, and sooner or later I'll get around to telling you about the first, a character I was deeply invested in.

Sian was a Sullustan (like the famous Nien Numb, co-pilot of the Millenium Falcon with Lando in Return of the Jedi).  In the campaign, everyone PC was a Jedi, so I had Sian be a character who didn't have the self-discipline to learn the more esoteric ways of manipulating the Force (Farseeing, Illusion, etc.) but had a natural gift for using it to improve her own physical prowess (through Enhance Ability and Battlemind).  She was designed as a swashbuckler, and fit the role to a T, often dashing around the battlefield pulling off crazy stunts with a blaster in one hand and a lightsaber in the other (I especially liked the system's "Heroic Surge" fear, which allowed extra actions during a round once or twice a day; you could do some really cinematic, exciting things with it).  Sian was a friendly, outgoing character with a taste for pranks and a deep friendship with (and love for) my previous character.

She survived until the time I left the campaign, and was last seen there working hard to stave off an attempted Sith invasion of the Republic.  I had her reappear in the Clone Wars campaign as the only living NPC who had spent time in the Anomaly (thus explaining the "time-travel" element).  I was able to play her as a PC for a few sessions when another player directed a story-arc, and I think she came across fairly well.
Sian Suan
Scoundrel 1/Jedi Guardian 6

Sullustant Species Traits:  +2 Dex, -2 Con; Darkvision 20', +2 Climb & Listen, +5 Diplomacy to Buy/Sell Goods, Lucky (1/day reroll), Deflect Extend/Attack

Age: 18, Gender: Female, Height: 1.4 m, Weight: 50 kg, Eyes: Red, Hair: None

Abilities: Str: 10, Dex 20 (+5), Con 12 (+1), Int 15 (+2), Wis 9 (-1), Cha 16 (+3)

Saves:  Fort +6, Reflex +14, Will +2

Vitality: 49, Wounds: 12, Defence +10, Speed 10', Initiative +5, Reputation +2

Attacks:  Blaster +11/+6, d. 3d6, Crit. 20;  Custom Lightsaber +12/+7, d. 3d8, 19-20

Skills:  Appraise +2, Astrogate +3, Balance +5, Bluff +7, Climb +2, Computer Use +3, Craft: Lightsaber +3, Diplomacy +3, Disable Device +6, Disguise +7, Entertain: Pranks +3, Escape Artist +10, Forgery +6, Gamble -1, Gather Info +3, Hide +10, Intimidate +3, Jump +2, Knowledge: Jedi Lore +3, Listen +1, Move Silently +9, Pilot +9, Ride +5, Search +2, Sense Motive -1, Sleight of Hand +10, Spot -1, Survival -1, Treat Injury -1, Tumble +11

Feats:  EWP: Lightsaber, Force-Sensitive, Heroic Surge (2/day), Lightning Reflexes, Quickness, WF: Lightsaber, WG: Simple, WG: Blasters

Force Feats:  Alter, Control, Burst of Speed, Sense

Force Skills:  Affect Mind +7, Battlemind +10, Enhance Ability +10, Enhance Sense +1, Force Stealth +3, Heal Another -1, Heal Self +4, See Force -1

Languages:  Sullustese (R/W), Basic (R/W), Rodian, Trandoshan

Equipment: 616 Credits, Blaster Pistol, All Temperature Cloak, Comlink, Datapad, Glow Rod, Medpac, Civilian Clothes, Jizana's Recording Rod, Custom Lightsaber, Translator Unit, 2nd lightsaber, Jedi Disk, Antique teacups

Character Background

Unlike most Sullustans, Sian Suan has never lived on, or even been to, Sullust.  Her life has been one of constant travel--occasional respites at some place "safe" followed by quick escapes and long periods of hiding.

It all began on Doromos IV in Hutt Space, shortly before Sian was born.  Sian's father, Wisan, had long been employed as an engineer for the SoruSuub Corporation before he was fired for unknown reasons.  While at SoruSuub, Wisan had begun to develop the plans for a device which, in theory, would allow starships to mask their energy signatures and appear effectively invisible to most electronic sensors.  Unemployed and looking for work, Wisan was approached by an agent of Soergg the Hutt, a reputable businessman and merchant based on Doromos IV.  Soergg offered Wisan a substantial salary in exchange for coming to Doromos IV and developing a working model of the masking device.

Wisan agreed to the offer, and spend almost two full years on Doromos IV working on the device.  It was during this time that Wisan met Sian's other, but Sian has never met her mother and Wisan refuses to talk about her or what happened to her.  In any event, as the project was finally nearing completion, Wisan and the infant Sian suddenly disappeared from Doromos IV almost without a trace.  There are two versions of what happened: the first story, spread by Soergg, is that Wisan realized the device would never work and decided to take his money and run; the second, told to Sian by her father, is that Soergg was planning to have him "disposed" of as soon as the device was completed.

What is known for sure is that a working model of the device was never completed, and that Wisan and Sian spent the rest of their lives on the run, hiding from Soergg's bounty hunters.  Sian remembers one particular incident, when she was about seven years old.  After docking as an orbital space station, Sian and her father stepped into the corridor to see a welcoming sight--a fellow Sullusant was waiting for them, smiling.  But suddenly the smile turned cold as the Sullustan raised a hold-out blaster pistol at them! (Soergg had deep pockets indeed.)  Almost simultaneously, Sian heard both the whine of the blaster shot and an odd hum, and suddenly a real-live Jedi Knight was standing in front of them, deflecting the blaster shots with a lightsaber!  Sian couldn't believe her eyes and almost instantly fell in love with the glamour and mystique of the Jedi.  Sian never got to see the Knight again, as her father picked her up and started to run--but it's an experience Sian has never forgotten.  [Unbeknownst to Sian, the young Jedi Knight would turn into a Master by the name of Gen Brightwater.]

As the years went on, the running continued.  Sian learned how to help her father evade the various mercenaries and bounty hunters that were always pursuing them--she developed good eyes and ears, the ability to hide in the smallest of spaces, and a steady hand with a blaster.  Unfortunately, she rarely received a formal education or the discipline that comes with focusing on a particular field of study.

When Sian was 15, she and her father moved in with the Ta'Tathrian aboard the Triberry.  It was here that Sian met Jizana, and the two became fast friends.  Although often anxious to leave again, Sian's father was reluctant to drag Sian away from the first place she had called "home."  Sian lived aboard the Triberry for almost three years, until one day her father disappeared.  He left a note saying that he was putting the ship in danger and that a life on the run was not the life he wanted his daughter to live.  Sian was almost floored by the news, but quickly decided to find where her father was and bring him back.  [While Sian was looking for her father, Jizana met the Jedi and began training at the Academy.]

After several weeks of looking, Sian couldn't find any clues as to where her father went.  Somewhat relieved that if she couldn't find him, Soergg the Hutt couldn't either, Sian decided to return to the Triberry and find Jizana.  However, while on board a passenger liner between systems, Sian ended up being delayed by almost three months.  The ship's hyperspace drive suffered nearly cataclysmic failure and was forced to limp its way to the nearest spacedock.

Also on board the liner was Eriza Palan, an experienced Jedi Initiate [6th level Guardian], returning from a visit with his family before taking the Trials.  One day this Initiate observed Sian playing a holosim of a space combat game.  To his amazement, the score counter kept getting higher and higher even as the electronic "enemies" whizzed by almost faster than the eye could see.  Sian's reflexes were almost unnatural, and the game ended when the holosim shorted out because it was running so fast.  Eriza immediately realized that Sian had something more than great reflexes--she was channeling the Force to increase her reactions.

Eriza and Sian struck up a friendship, and as the voyage promised to be long and tedious, Eriza offered to show Sian some of the basics of using the Force.  Eriza found that Sian was a quick learner in a few specific skills [enhance ability and battlemind] but had great difficulty in learning other Force skills.  Sian also developed surprising skill with the Lightsaber.  Eriza told Sian that there was a Jedi Academy on a planet called Ossus, and that someday she might apply to become a student there.  Besides learning about the Force, Sian passed the time by developing ever-more elaborate, but always non-humiliating and non-harmful, pranks on Eriza.  One day she reprogrammed the auto-door opening system so that they only happened halfway, or opened and closed before he could pass through.  Another day she added a small microchip to Eriza's Lightsaber so it played the theme song from the holovid "Jedi Knight III: The Dark Side Cometh" whenever he ignited it.

The passenger liner finally reached an orbital repair facility.  It was here that Sian met up with some of the Ta'Tathrian and learned the horrible news about Jizana's parents and of Jizana becoming a student at the Jedi Academy.  With a combination of sweet talk and sob story, Sian convinced Eriza to allow her to come to the Academy with him.

Sian is anxious to see Jizana again and to learn more about the Jedi.  She has always admired the Jedi but never thought it possible that she could ever become one.  Sian is quick-witted and friendly, but gets quickly gets bored doing the same thing over and over.  She loves a good prank, whether its resurrecting a golden oldie or inventing something new.  If she ever becomes a Jedi Knight, she plans on taking care of Soergg the Hutt so her father can finally stop running.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fantastic Four vs. the X-Men [COMICS]

Fantastic Four vs. the X-Men was a four-issue limited series pairing together two teams that hadn't interacted before too frequently.  The series came out during 1986, around the time I started getting into comics as a kid, and I'm pleasantly surprised today at how enjoyable it was to read.  Chris Claremont clearly knows these characters inside and out, and in the first issue posits an intriguing question: how could super-scientist Reed Richards not know about the risk of cosmic rays?  What if he intentionally flew into the ray storm on the hypothesis that bodily transformations would result?  It's a storyline that plays perfectly with what we know from continuity but complicates it by putting a different interpretation on it.  Add in good artwork and an appearance from my favourite super-villain (Doom!), and you have the formula for some good comics.

Issue # 1 begins, as pretty much every story involving the Fantastic Four does, with Reed working in his lab on a gigantic piece of machinery.  It's late in the evening, and he's interrupted by Franklin having a nightmare of his father being responsible for the deaths of the FF and the X-Men, and transforming into Doctor Doom.  Franklin is sent to his mother, and finds her unpacking some crates that have finally turned up after years lost in storage.  In one of them Sue finds Reed's old college journal and begins flipping through it.  Exactly what it contains is still a mystery in this issue, but basically it makes it clear that Reed knew the risks of flying into the cosmic storm and wanted he and his companions to be turned into super-beings in order to fight the growing menaces threatening the world.  Sue is flabbergasted by the revelation, by Reed is torn by angst and self-doubt--he doesn't remember things that way, but the account is so plausible . . .  Meanwhile, on Muir Isle, the X-Men are recovering from the Mutant Massacre.  Kitty Pryde is trapped in her intangible form. Her molecules slowly drifting away from each other, and unless she's cured soon, she'll die.  Magneto thinks a certain famous scientists with the initials R.R. could be of help . . .

Issue # 2 sees the F.F. arrive on Muir Isle with the machine to help the X-Men, and as the Constitution requires, a fight breaks out!  Reed's angst leads him to decide that it's too risky to use his machine on Kitty Pryde, but the X-Men don't take no for an answer and try to seize it.  An emissary from Doctor Doom arrives to announce that if Reed Richards' won't help, Doom will.  The X-Men are willing to bargain with the devil to save Kitty, and the F.F. are ousted from the island.

Issue # 3 opens with the X-Men at Doom's castle in Latveria.  Is it bad that I know a lot more about the fictional Latveria than the real Latvia?  Anyway, Kitty tries to off herself!  Fortunately, Franklin's astral body manages to talk her down.  Back in New York, the members of the F.F. deal individually with Reed's apparent betrayal.  Ben heads to Yancy Street (now gentrified) to drink and mope, Johnny finds solace in the arms of Alicia, and Sue mostly just continues to give Reed the cold shoulder.  By the end of the issue, however, the querulous quartet are reunited and off to Latveria as well.

Issue # 4 opens with some sweet scenes aboard the F.F.'s transport between old friends Ben and Sue, and Johnny and She-Hulk (yes, I've neglected to mention she's been hanging out!).  The latter pair discuss stories they've heard about how Reed and Doom were such huge rivals in college, and I imagine there's a lot of good flashback story opportunities there.  Anyway, the F.F. arrive in Latveria, but the X-Men believe they may disrupt Doom's attempted cure and . . . a fight ensues!  As it must.  But Franklin gets the two sides to reconcile, and Reed and Doom together save Kitty.  It's a sweet story of friendship overcoming all and everyone lives happily ever after until seconds later when Sue accuses Doom of having fabricated the journal, knowing it would throw a spanner in the F.F.'s works!

Anyway, all in all, good, clear, crisp storytelling that is definitely worth a read for fans of the genre.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Realms Toowoomba Session # 36 [RPG]

[Flashback to 4 Kythorn 1372]

Having escaped the wolf pack, Markus finds a campsite sheltered from the winds and rests for the night.

[10 Kythorn 1372]

After a successful escape from the peril of undead trolls, the adventurers continue heading west towards Nesme. The air begins to get cooler and cooler as they travel, and snow begins to fall heavily. The group sets up camp at a concealed site. Mellia takes Fargrim and Cain aside for an important talk.  Mellia says that they are the only ones who know about her daughter, and that if something happens to Mellia no one else could rescue and raise the girl. She asks if Cain and Fargrim are willing to stand in her place should the worst occur. Cain offers to place the girl safely in his religious order, while Fargrim says he is honoured by Mellia's trust in him. Mellia provides the two adventurers with details of her arcane order's location and legal documents that will shore up their claim in the event of Mellia's death.

Later, Sha'dar approaches Fargrim and asks if he can have some of the arrows the dwarf carries. Fargrim replies that he needs to think of the welfare of the group overall, and says no. Sha'dar mutters something about a "stupid dwarf" and proceeds to work on crafting his own. During watches that night, Fargrim catches Aloysius attempting to stealthily sneak away for some unknown reason; the gnome claims he was only going to relieve himself.

[11 Kythorn 1372]

Mellia awakens with a start, mildly annoyed to realize that Cain's horse has chewed a large hole in her bedroll. Cain compensates her for the loss. As the group starts to continue their journey west, Sha'dar and Fargrim disagree on the correct direction to take. Cain persuades the two to compromise and take a route roughly in between the elf and dwarf's divergent directions.

Snowfall becomes heavier and heavier as the group continue west, forcing the adventurers' mounts to trudge through deep drafts. Extreme cold becomes a real problem, even as Aloysius warns of another: he states he saw frost giants and clerics of Auril when last he passed this way. The group continues very cautiously and very slowly, and as darkness falls decide to set up camp. With the horses starting to falter from the cold, Terreck builds a partial wall of snow to provide them some protection from the cold. Meanwhile, Mellia reports success in a spell she's been working on for situations just like this one: she conjures access to a small extradimensional space that the adventurers can rest in for the night, free of concerns about temperature and wandering monsters.  Although the horses have to be left below (and Aloysius' magical backpack left buried in the snow), the group enjoy a restful, if cramped, night's sleep in the formless pocket dimension.

[12 Kythorn 1372]

In the morning, the adventurers leave the safety of the extradimensional space created by Mellia's magic. One of the mounts (Aloysius' pony) is near death from a night spent in the freezing cold, but Sha'dar manages to get it back on its feet with a healing spell. The group discusses whether they should push forward through the cold, turn south and then west to approach Nesme from a different direction, head north for the Surbin River, or head straight back east towards Silverymoon. A long discussion ensues, as continuing into the cold seems potentially suicidal, the south is known to be crawling with undead, Cain has important business in Nesme, and Mellia urges Silverymoon. Eventually, the group decide to head north until they reach the Surbin and then follow it east towards Silverymoon, skirting most of the Evermoors in the process.

After a few hours journey north, Fargrim's mount collapses from the cold. As the group halts to tend to it, a huge icy boulder flies through the air and strikes Terreck right in the back, knocking him to the ground. A second boulder smashes into Mellia, and the wind carries the sound of angry shouting. Whirling to face their foe, the adventurers realize Aloysius' warning was apt: a massive frost giant, along with two winter wolves, is primed for battle.

Cain reacts instantly, surrounding the foes with a raging wall of flames. The frost giant and his wolves leap through the flames, but are badly singed in the process. Aloysius and Mellia quickly hurl massive balls of fire, slowing the attackers further. The giant manages to take a swipe at Mellia with his enormous axe, but the magical onslaught continues when Cain shoots rays of blinding light and Aloysius finishes the hapless giant with a scorching blast.  Sha'dar's skill with the bow drops the one wolf who survived the flames.  Terreck, who had disappeared during the fight in a cloud of black and purple smoke, eventually re-emerges. Meanwhile, Aloysius quickly searches the frost giant's corpse and pockets several gems.

The group hurries north and soon leave the cold and frost behind. Reaching the northern edges of the Evermoors as night starts to fall, the adventurers can see the Surbin River winding through a valley some miles distant. Sha'dar finds the group a sheltered campsite in a copse of trees.

Having emerged victorious against a dreaded frost giant, the adventurers rejoice in their success. One of their number, however, knows that the consequences of turning away from Nesme could be dire . . .


Director's Commentary (August 10, 2015)

This session saw the PCs crossing the extremely dangerous terrain and having a random encounter against a frost giant and its winter wolves.  The PCs' teamwork (or sheer individual power) was in evidence, as they handled the attackers expertly.  The idea with the western area of the Evermoors being covered in ice and snow, and the encounter with the frost giant, is to build further one of the major subplots of the campaign: an alliance between the Aurilites (worshippers of the goddess of cold) and a frost giant tribe to establish a new base of power outside their usual domains.

Mellia shows off her new spell (Rope Trick), which is one of those ones that makes perfect sense to use in character if you have it, but actually makes the game a lot less fun because it completely eliminates any chance of random encounters at nightime.  Soon, the PCs will get other spells (gaseous cloud, teleport, etc.) that eliminate all random encounters for cross-country travel.  In other words, we're getting to the part where a lot of people, and I think myself included now, find that D&D starts to break down and become less fun.

Some interesting and very divergent views on what the group should do.  Having six PCs, each with their own personalities and goals, is going to create some excellent RP and some extremely challenging scenarios for the director in the near future!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Realms Toowoomba Session # 35 [RPG]

[Flashback to 4 Kythorn 1372]

Without his having realized it, a cunning pack of wolves have slowly closed in on Markus. Hoping to bring down his mount, some of the wolves dash in to nip and claw at its flanks. Markus wastes no time and spurs the horse in a gallop to the east. Some of the wolves stay behind to finish off the wounded man abandoned by Markus, while others give chase. Markus' mount pours on the speed, and despite suffering some additional injuries, is able to outrun the wolves.  With the sound of howling fading away into the distance behind him, Markus has made it to safety--at least for now.

[8 Kythorn 1372]

Inside the crumbled remnants of Startop Castle, Mellia suggests to the others that the group head for Silverymoon instead of Mirabar. She argues that the so-called Gem of the North is not only much closer and will allow Bearos to receive expert healing sooner, but also that she's been actively studying a spell that, when learned, will allow her to instantly deliver anyone to Mirabar who wishes to travel there. The others, however, are not convinced. Terreck says he prefers Mirabar as he's likely to find a friendlier reception there than in Silverymoon. Aloysius wants to be compensated for his contribution to freeing Bearos, and the bounty on Grim is payable in Mirabar. Fargrim also insists on Mirabar. Sha'dar, Cain, and Ellywick express no preferences one way or the other.

Aloysius and Sha'dar briefly foray into the orc caverns below the keep, but return upon realizing guards have been set there once again. The group thus sets out for Mirabar. As they make their way into the stone tunnel that leads to the trail down the mountain, however, Sha'dar notices a faint, almost transparent puddle of liquid along the path. Sha'dar halts the group so they can discuss what it is, but seconds later, the puddle moves! It flows along the ground and then a huge tentacle reaches up and tries to encircle Sha'dar.  Fortunately, the elven scout is fast enough to duck below it.

Realizing that the puddle must actually be some sort of animate ooze, the party attacks. Although mundane weapons have little effect, Terreck's arrows, Mellia's spell "Nightflower's Retribution", and Aloysius's spell "Pumpernickel's Projectiles of Pure Power" seem to hurt the creature. Hoping to distract it, Aloysius tries to get his mount to walk towards it. The ooze is destroyed seconds later and the pony is unharmed, but an enraged Sha'dar strikes the gnome with the shaft of his bow and shouts that animals are never expendable. Aloysius demands additional compensation for his injury, but Mellia takes Sha'dar's side and says that horses don't come cheap.

The group reach the base of the mountain and set off to the west, looking for the sheltered campsite they had used recently. Although they're unable to find it, Sha'dar finds an even better substitute. The group settles in for the night.

[9 Kythorn 1372]

The group continues to head west. Sha'dar continues trying to make friends with Aloysius' cat, Cain finds success in healing the rotted flesh on Bearos' arm, and Aloysius complains that the group is moving too slowly and cautiously. A light snow drifts across the moor as the group camps.

[10 Kythorn 1372]

In the morning, Mellia starts talking to Cain and Fargrim about what will happen after they reach Mirabar, and asks for their support in returning to Startop Mountain. Before the conversation progresses far, Mellia and Aloysius begin arguing over the latter's tendency to use condescending nicknames. It seems clear that, despite his usefulness, the gnome has found few friends in the group. Fargrim interrupts the dispute by shouting that he has a group to run, and he won't have it arguing. The others seem impressed that Fargrim has taken a stronger, more vocal leadership role in the group, though they're also somewhat surprised.

Continuing west at a cautious pace, the group enter an area full of treacherous bogs. Long, but rickety-looking wooden bridges span one part of the bog, and the group is faced with the choice of taking them to continue further west or trying to find their own way through. Once again, careful scouting by Sha'dar keeps the party out of harm's way. The elf spots large, monstrous tracks heading into the bog and then just manages to make out a form lurking underwater in the middle of a muddy pool of water.

Working together, Terreck and Aloysius concoct an illusion of figures walking across the bridge, and instantly the bridges begin to shake violently. Cain surmises from Sha'dar's description of what he saw under the water that the lurkers may be undead abominations. Drawing deep on the powers granted to him by Kossuth, he channels raw positive energy to force some of the creatures to flee. Others emerge, and it becomes clear what the adventurers are facing: massive unliving things created from the skeletal remnants of trolls. Sha'dar riddles the creatures with arrow after arrow, and together the adventurers make it across the bridges and to the other side safely.

Director's Commentary (July 6, 2015)

This was a session of travelling.  I like this stage of campaigns, as I enjoy random encounters and the sense that it takes time to get places.  It won't be long before the PCs get teleportation spells and magical places to hide, and then the campaign has a very different feel (and is a lot harder on the director, as I can't use random encounters to slow down the pace of the game!).  I'll talk more about this issue in a future commentary.

The group argues about whether to go to Silverymoon or go to Mirabar.  I always enjoy moments like this while directing--I can just sit back and enjoy the players being in character and role-playing well.  As they travel, you can see that Aloysius rubs other PCs the wrong way, but the character was very memorable and played extremely well.  Sha'dar, run by the player who normally ran Markus, is a very serious character who is quite useful in overland travel with his knowledge of nature, tracking, survival, etc.  (a type of character who is unfortunately less useful once teleportation magics and magical hiding places come into the campaign).

I thought the random encounters here were solid, if unspectacular.  I wanted to give the sense that the Evermoors were extremely dangerous to travel through, and the PCs had to decide whether to travel quickly and face more risk, or travel cautiously and lessen the chances of random encounters.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Realms Toowoomba Session # 34 [RPG]

[Flashback to 4 Kythorn 1372: Markus departs Startop Mountain, riding his warhorse east across the Evermoors towards Silverymoon. After a few hours' journey, he spots a figure laying in a small hollow, futilely trying to crawl east. Wary, Markus keeps his distance and calls out to the man, who is obviously wounded with deep gouges along his back. The figure gasps that he has to deliver a message to Silvermoon: a nightmarish horde of undead armies are marching towards Nesme, and the city will no doubt fall unless reinforcements arrive. Before Markus can respond, he hears the howling of wolves: nearby, and all around him!]

[8 Kythorn 1372]

Morning dawns on the party, bringing with it more cold rain. Mellia looks tired and drawn when she wakes. The adventurers discuss various eventualities that could occur when the group learns whether the orcs have kept their part of the bargain. Aloysius suggests a plot where the adventurers pretend to be re-establishing the slave trade, and can then spring a trap on the orcs. Mellia seems dubious of the wisdom of this. Mellia suggests that if the orcs have Bearos but not the Crown of Horns, the group should remove Bearos from harm and then return in a few days to continue the search for the Horn. Terreck suggests the group simply attack the orcs, to which Aloysius adds that there is no need to worry about the slaves: they are a liability and will simply get in the way.  Sha'dar states his opposition to putting innocent lives at risk, to which Aloysius responds with the debater's point that the group doesn't know the slaves are innocent. After more discussion, the consensus is to try to negotiate first, and fight as a last resort. Mellia elicits commitments from the others that, should the group get what it is looking for, it will leave Startop Mountain.

Terreck organizes the group into a battle formation and the adventurers head down into the orc caverns. Sha'dar leaves the others in the guardroom in order to scout west, past the previously-found slave pits. He sees empty barracks, a bedroom of some kind, and a place where caged animals were obviously kept, but
little else of interest.

When the adventurers reach what is presumably the entrance to the mines, they see the orcs have maintained guards and hostages in the same position as last time. A sleeping Abu Joral awakens, and informs the group that a message in response to the one sent below to the Maestro has not yet arrived; he asks for more time. The group is impatient, but decides to wait a little while longer.  In conversation, Abu Joral says that he came to Startop Mountain in search of the Worldbreaker, a messianic figure from his faith who will turn barren fields into lush pasture lands, turn slaves into freemen, and end wars. Terreck's keen eyesight shows that, past Joral and the blockade at the end of the corridor, at least a dozen more orcs are being awoken and are moving around.

At last, Mellia hears the grinding of stone far to the south, and minutes later a gaunt, scarred man wearing heavy armor and an unholy symbol of the beastlord Malar arrives. Without introducing himself, the man thrusts a scroll in Joral's direction and proceeds to clean his fingernails with a knife. Joral reads the scroll containing the Maestro's response to the group's inquiry about Bearos and the Crown of Horns. It seems that the Maestro is most displeased about the death of Grim, as he was a reliable and profitable source of slaves for the Bleak Theatre. The Maestro goes on to write that, while he has never heard of the Crown of Horns, he is willing to part with the useless slave Bearos for a trifling sum as the arrangement with Grim is no longer valid. However, the Maestro demands compensation for the cost and labor involved in finding a new source of slaves from the surface, and suggests a starting figure of 5,000 gp or 40 common slaves or 6 exotic specimens for his gladiatorial arenas.

The gaunt figure takes over at this point, and with coarse language indicates he wants to get the bargaining over quickly as he has important business to attend to. The adventurers struggle to decide how to come up with the sum of money the Maestro is asking for. Aloysius asks the figure why they should bother bargaining, and he replies that if there's a fight, Bearos' throat will be the first one slit. Terreck decides on a risky ruse to scare the opposition, and recites an incantation to summon the image of a monstrous, fearsome beast; however, the casting was done in full view of the figure and he recognizes that illusion magicks are involved. He says that's one strike against the group, and he's not the sort to give a second one.

The bargaining continues. The figure knocks a small bit off the total based on Aloysius' bluff that he has some contacts in slaving circles that could speed up the search for a new supplier. When the figure makes a crude comment towards Mellia, the enraged diviner immediately begins the gestures necessary to hurl a
massive ball of fire in his direction. Aloysius manages to talk her out of it just in time, by saying the man isn't worth it. Fargrim decides that, if the group can't meet the sum in hard currency, a contribution of valuable items may suffice. He throws the ring he obtained from the severed hand outside of Luskan to Aloysius to examine, and when the gnome starts to throw it in the direction of the gaunt figure, chaos breaks out. Sha'dar orders his elven hound to stop Aloysius, and the hound does so by biting down hard on the gnome's wrist! The ring drops from the gnome's bloody hand. After Fargrim appraises the ring, he shrugs and offers to throw it into the pot along with a chain shirt obtained from Grim that he knows is magical. Cain offers to throw in the thick gold disk obtained from a half-orc, Mellia contributes two gems, and Aloysius closes the deal by adding 1,000 gp and his bag of holding.

With the deal struck, the exchange is made: Bearos is brought forth, pushed along on his wheeled wooden board. He looks well, for the most part, but has large splotches of rotting flesh on his arms. As the group makes their way to the surface, Bearos explains that strange phenomena have affected all those in the Bleak Theatre, and that he is more fortunate than many. Mellia speculates that perhaps the proximity of the Crown of Horns is causing the phenomena and whether Cain and Fargrim's nightmares are related. Bearos goes on to tell the group some of what he saw below: the Bleak Theatre contains areas for slave auctions and massive gladiatorial arenas, but the Maestro is subordinate to the master (named the Thane) of a nearby fortress.

As they begin to set up camp in the old keep, the group discuss what they should do. Fargrim suggests heading for Mirabar in order to return Bearos and collect the reward for Grim's death. Mellia expresses her assent, as Aloysius has presented her with a bill (plus interest) for his contribution to the bargain struck below. She hopes also to conduct research on Myrkul. Aloysius mentions the bounty in Nesme on monstrous creatures and having seen frost giants west of Startop Mountain, but the others express little interest in this line of thought.

Having successfully completed a difficult task in rescuing Bearos, the adventurers settle in for the night with plans to depart in the morning.
Director's Commentary (June 20, 2015)

One can clearly see in retrospect, 70 sessions and a couple of years later, that this was the crucial turning point in the campaign and the place where it went off the rails.  The whole concept of this campaign was that it was an entry-level dungeon crawl "beer and pretzels" game for players new to D&D.  I had dropped something like $ 110 on the Castle Whiterock boxed set and was hoping to get my money's worth, so the entire campaign was to be centered around it.

Alas, this session, about getting about halfway through the second level of a fifteen-level megadungeon, the adventurers leave, and for the entire rest of the campaign, never delve into it any further!

I don't blame them for the particular decision to leave in order to get Bearos to safety.  After all, his rescue was a major achievement.  It's what happened after that which was hard to swallow and started an unfortunate trend of adventurers not adventuring :)  Yes, I'm bitter, but I share in the blame because there was a limit to how much I was willing to force them to go into a particular direction even if it meant the campaign became rather inchoate without it.

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