Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Realms Toowoomba Recap # 17 [RPG]

[7 Mirtul 1372]

Having discovered a way to put the angry spirit of a dead woman to rest, Markus searches the mausoleum while Mellia stands guard. Inside, he finds a silver comb studded with moonstones underneath the skeletal remains of the woman, who had tried to claw her way out of the tomb. There appears to be little else of interest, and the group returns (with difficulty due to the high winds) to Xantharl's Keep and the seedy inn where they had been staying. The innkeeper is dismayed to see that they are still alive, as he had intended to sell the group's horses. An adamant Mellia makes him clean her room, while Ellywick uses Gnomish magicks to clean her's.

That evening, the group braves the weather and ventures over to the Falling Orc tavern. It's a crowded and lively place, full of villagers gambling with dice and trying to out do one another throwing daggers. A heavily armored sellsword named Antonov Vassily reluctantly decides to throw his lot in with the group, given how dangerous travel along the Long Road has been in recent months.

[8 Mirtul 1372]

The group sets off south. After a few hours' travel, they encounter a stream of refugees heading north, claiming that a wave of troll attacks has driven them out of their homes and farms. Some of the refugees discuss hiding behind spellcasters in Longsaddle or with the barbarians in Grunwald, but most have decided that only the thick walls of Mirabar offer real safety. No one seems to know why the trolls have left their traditional hunting grounds, the Evermoors.

Later, during a break for lunch, the group notices smoke rising in the distance and hears the faint sound of screams carried on the wind. Rushing to investigate, they see that a roadside hostel is on fire and that screams are coming from within. Within moments, a horrific sight emerges: a monstrous, 9-foot tall, 500 lb. troll. Fortunately there is only one, but the resulting battle is still a difficult one. Antonov almost bleeds to death from a vicious series of claw attacks, but Markus is able to safe his life just in time with a healing draught. Ellywick shoots arrow after arrow into the monstrosity, while Mellia manifests fire from her fingertips that hurts and enrages the beast. Cain tries to do the same, but is cursed by Kossuth for failing to obtain a proper, non-flammable holy symbol. A final arrow from Ellywick strikes the troll in the eye and drops it to the ground, and a revived Antonov decapitates it. The group quickly pushes the remains of the troll into the burning building before its flesh can magically regenerate.
Director's Commentary (October 23, 2013)

I liked playing the seedy innkeeper as one of those stock characters that always run cheap motels in movie and t.v. shows.  You know, the balding, greasy guy with a paunch who doesn't really care what happens as long as you don't set the room on fire, but who's also always on the look-out for a way to score a few bucks by hook or crook.

The character of Antonov Vassily was a one-shot PC played by the brother of the player who runs Markus.  It actually took a bit longer than I thought it would to reach the point where Antonov would be travelling with the PCs.  But that's due to good role-playing (who would suddenly want a stranger to accompany them?).  Antonov had a very fun Russian accent.

The combat against the troll in the midst of a burning hostel, with screaming travellers inside, turned out pretty well I think.  A troll represented one of the greatest threats the PCs had faced yet, due to the fact that it had multiple attacks, each of which could dish out some damage.  One troll proved a quite tough encounter at this point, and any more would likely have been a TPK.  The bit with Cain's holy symbol was another great bit of synchronicity.  After the character lost his metal holy symbol when everyone was enslaved aboard The Woeful Tide, Cain decided to simply carve a rough approximation out of wood.  We had chatted out of character about how such a flammable holy symbol was likely to anger the God of Fire, and sure enough, Cain cast an attack spell and rolled a natural 1.  I have a set of critical fumble cards (from Paizo) that include fumbled magical attacks, and the effect on the card that Cain's player drew was "Cursed: -4 to Attacks & Skills".  So everything tied together nicely, and it spurred Cain into seeking out an expert silversmith to craft a new holy symbol in order to get rid of the curse.  Little things like that are perfect for adding some memorable events to a character's adventures.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Thirty Days of Graphic Novels, Day 30: "Greenberg the Vampire"

I can't say I'm a huge fan of DeMatteis' solo writing; sometimes he tried so hard to be meaningful that he ended up being pseudo-metaphysical and outright goofy.  A little of that is apparent in Greenberg the Vampire, but there's enough characterization and story to make the whole book a worthwhile read.  Greenberg is a successful horror writer whose book has been optioned into a movie.  He finds himself with writer's block as he tries to draft a script for the movie, but even worse, his work has drawn the attention of the biblical demon Lilith, who seduces him and fills his mind with terrible, dark fantasies for him to pour onto the page.  There's also a subplot involving vampires, but it doesn't mesh so well with the plot.  As usual, I'm probably not doing the story justice, but suffice it to say it's nicely written and has excellent painted artwork from Mark Badger.

Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron Volume 1

Now that I'm a few sessions into directing a new Star Wars Saga Edition campaign set in the New Republic, with the PCs as members of an elite force of pilot-commandos, it seemed like a fun time to re-read the adventures of Rogue Squadron.  Dark Horse's three Omnibus editions collect the early issues of the X-Wing Rogue Squadron series, chronicling their missions just after the Battle of Endor (and thus chronologically earlier than the novels).  Volume 1 of the Omnibus editions collects three mini-series and a character handbook.

In Rogue Leader, the Rogues are redeployed from Endor clean-up duty to Corellia system.  There, they manage to fend off the surprise attack of an Imperial contingent and capture its leader, General Weir.  It's pretty basic, straightforward story-telling, memorable for the gruesome torture of the Sullustan Rogue Dllr Nep.

In The Rebel Opposition, the Rogues are sent to the planet Cilpar, where a native resistance group is trying to throw off the Imperial yoke.  Cilpar has some interesting features--mysterious old temples, vicious native beasts, etc.  It's also the story that introduces (at least chronologically) future Rogue Elscol Lord and her Wookie friend Groznik.  Winter has a nice role as an undercover New Republic contact often mistaken for Leia.

The Phantom Affair is set in a famous university on the planet Mrllst.  At first it looks to be of the "stop the Imperials from getting another super-weapon" type of story, and then it adds a nice twist, but then leaves the New Republic apparently in possession of a portable black-hole maker! (apparently never seen again . . .)  The villain in the piece, Loka Hask, is memorable, as he has a parasite stuck to the side of his face and was responsible for the death of Wedge's parents.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What I Read (2012)

Jan. 31, 2012  Le Livre d'Or de la science-fiction: A.E. Van Vogt
"Anthology of works of mid-century SF writer.  A couple are interesting."

Feb. 4, 2012  Vinyl Cafe Unplugged by Stuart Mclean
"A really good, easy to read and enjoy collection of short stories about a record store owner and family."

Feb. 13, 2012  Life Itself by Roger Ebert
"Ebert's memoirs, mostly in blog post form.  Not a cohesive, well-planned book, but some great individual passages."

Feb. 20, 2012  Winter's Heart by Robert Jordan
"Rand cleanses saidin & Matt meets the Daughter of the Nine Moons.  Okay."

Feb. 20, 2012  Journal d'un degonfle: Rodrick fait sa loi by Jeff Kinney
"Continues to be fun"

Mar. 16, 2012  Tumbling After by Paul Witcover
"First book I finished in Australia.  Marvelous, fantastic, original.  Highly recommended & thought provoking.  Haunting."

Mar. 29, 2012  Deception on His Mind by Elizabeth George
"Good setting & characters, well-researched on Islam.  Murderer not persuasive."

Apr. 7, 2012  Snatchers by Helen Cresswell
"Interesting, original.  YA book w/ fairy-tale like atmosphere."

Apr. 8, 2012  A Shorter History of Australia by Geoffrey Blainey
"Readable & fairly interesting; not gripping, and anti-labor bias."

Apr. 11, 2012  O, Jerusalem by Laurie R. King
"Finished after a long interval.  Very evocative portrayal of the "Holy Land""

Apr. 12, 2012  Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
"Great characters, witty dialogue, a lot of fun."

Apr. 2012  In Calmer Times: The Supreme Court and Red Monday by Arthur J. Sabin
"Very readable overview of Supreme Court handling of Communist cases, with emphasis on Hoover."

Apr. 28, 2012  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
"Fast-moving, first-person account.  Doesn't pull punches.  Surprising lack of focus on moral quandaries."

Apr. 29, 2012  White Darkness by David A. McIntyre
A Doctor Who novel set in 1915 Haiti & featuring voodoo and a really well done Cthulhu theme."

May 19, 2012  Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood
First Phryne Fisher mystery, set in 1920s Melbourne.  Very fun character, though a bit Mary-Sue."

May 23, 2012  The Cartoons That Shook the World by Jytte Klausen
"More journalism than scholarship, but definitely worth reading."

May 2012  Infernal Sorceress by Gary Gygax
"Mediocre fantasy novel of roguish Ferret & Raker."

June 3, 2012  Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
"What an amazing read!  Mobile cities in a post-apocalyptic landscape vie for resources.  Full of exciting action scenes, nicely executed twists, and cinematic potential."

June 7, 2012 The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights by Austin Dacey
"Excellent analysis of blasphemy with recourse to moral theory & deep conceptual analysis."

June 18, 2012  Les fiancees de l'enfer by Chrystine Brouillet
"Police thriller.  Good characterization, but poorly plotted, with all resolution occurring 'off-camera.'"

June 30, 2012  A Wizard of Mars by Diane Duane
"A stasis-locked species begins to awaken on Mars.  Solid, and good character development."

July 4, 2012  Grave Surprise by Charlaine Harris
"Second in series about psychic corpse-finder.  Very good characters, with interesting romantic subplot."

July 13, 2012 Kitty Goes to Washington by Carrie Vaughn
"Book 2 in werewolf DJ story, as Congressional hearings launch.  Interesting angle, somewhat loosely plotted.  Not as good as first."

July 22, 2012  Nightside City by Lawrence Watt-Evans
"Excellent SF noir private detective novel set on a planet where there is perpetual darkness, but daytime is coming and will ruin the city.  Really well-written."

July 2012  Church & State: Australia's Imaginary Wall by Tom Frame
"Adopts very much a middle-ground approach, advocating no formal legal separation but that Christians not try to intermingle beliefs w/ gov't affairs."

August 2, 2012 November 1975: The Inside Story of Australia's Greatest Political Crisis by Paul Kelly
"Fascinating, important story.  Gough comes across as arrogant & disdainfully blind, Fraser as shrewd, and Kerr so worried about being fired he was willing to deceive in order to strike first."

August 2, 2012  Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan
"Book 10.  Slow in some spots, but gets better.  Still a lot of threads, would like to see them start to come together."

August 6, 2012  Open Constitutional Courts by Patrick Keyzer
"An excellent argument for abolishing standing and costs in constitutional cases in Australia."

August 6, 2012 House of Serpents by Lisa Smedman
"Omnibus of three novels set in Forgotten Realms.  Hlondeth, city of serpent-men Yuan-ti and human slaves.  Interesting setting sets it apart, as does focus on psionics.  Well-written and evocative."

August 9, 2012  Pool of Radiance by James M. Ward & Jane Hong
"Great nostalgia after playing game so often as a teenager."

August 15, 2012  Journal d'un degonfle: Trop c'est trop by James Kinney
"Third book in the series, and still very funny."

September 24, 2012 The Enemy of My Enemy by Jeremy & Kelly Patrick
"Awesome Star Wars novel based on our RPG characters.  Unbiased review."

September 24, 2012  Pools of Darkness by James Ward & Anne Brown
"So-so sequel set 10 years after Pools of Radiance, as Phlan is kidnapped."

September 29, 2012 In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner by Elizabeth George
"Two bodies found on the moor, and Lynley keeps Havers off the case after the end of the last book.  Solid, but subplots more interesting than main case."

October 1, 2012  Silver Marches by Ed Greenwood & Jason Call
"Sourcebook for Forgotten Realms, detailing area of North centered by Silverymoon.  Pretty good."

Oct. 2012  The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns by Andy Piascik
"Argues the Browns had the greatest football dynasty ever.  A fun look at the earliest years of the franchise."

Nov. 4, 2012  Letterati: An Unauthorized Look at Scrabble and the People Who Play It by Paul McCarthy
"Very focused on elite tournament players and their grudges w/ Hasbro."

Nov. 11, 2012  The Build Up by Phillip Gwynne
"Crime novel set in the (Aussie) Northern Territory.  Great characters and evocation of setting.  Could use better plot and narrative structure."

Nov. 12, 2012 Xenocide by Orson Scott Card
"Disappointing sequel.  Very talky & rather slow, with goofy developments re: resurrection of characters."

Nov. 12, 2012 Canadian Maverick: The Life and Times of Ivan C. Rand by William Kaplan
"Fairly well-written book, but I'm not persuaded the subject was noteworthy or important enough to deserve it."

Nov. 15, 2012  Charlie Bone et le mystere de minuit by Jenny Nimmo
"Average story, with many similarities to Harry Potter, of young boy who discovers he has strange powers and is sent to school with others of his kind."

Nov. 18, 2012  The Outlaws of Mars by Otis A. Kline
"Standard sword-and-planet adventure, full of action but racist problems."

Nov. 25, 2012  Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron
"Sweet, touching story."

Dec. 4, 2012  Ordered Universes: Approaches to the Anthropology of Religion by Morton Klass
"Very focussed on establishing better definitions of key terms, but admirable concern for objectivity."

Dec. 4, 2012  Probability Moon by Nancy Kress
"Interesting story about world where inhabitants must 'share reality' or suffer psychic pain; first of trilogy, leaving some Qs unanswered.  Well-written."

Dec. 9, 2012  Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
"Play is worth reading, though Faustus' motivations are somewhat cryptic."

Dec. 9, 2012  Robots Have No Tails by Henry Kuttner
"Collection of short stories about a wacky, alcoholic inventor.  Some fun."

Dec. 16, 2012  Template by Matthew Hughes
"Interesting universe w/ clearly defined cultures.  Plot strong at first, but peters out."

Dec. 17, 2012  Mrs. Jeffries & the Mistletoe Mix-Up by Emily Brightwell
"Okay characters, but plot doesn't hold up on examination."

Dec. 2012  Doctor Who & the Zarbi by Bill Strutton
"Aliens are far less goofy here than on screen."

Dec. 28, 2012  I, Jedi by Michael A. Stackpole
"First person by Corran Horn, searching (very slowly!) for kidnapped wife.  Incorporates material from other novels."

Dec. 2012  Justice Hall by Laurie R. King
"Incredibly boring for the most part, almost plotless until the final 1/4."

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Christmas 2012

I'm back in Australia now after spending a month in Canada over the holidays.  It's been a great first year down under, as I love my job (collegial, dedicated co-workers), enjoy the climate (spider invasions and occasional heat waves & freezing nights excluded), and The Wife has adjusted after a tough first couple of months.  Still, I'd been looking forward to Christmas in Canada for months, and it didn't disappoint.  I'm a fast-food junkie, and there's so much I just can't get in Australia:  veggie burgers from Harveys & A&W; tofu teriyaki; Taco Bell, etc.  The prices on most things are so much lower in Canada, and there's more used book and DVD stores.  The grandparents were nice enough to watch Lan for a weekend so The Wife and I could spend a couple of days in Toronto, the first time we'd been alone together in months.  It was a good occasion to catch up with old friends, revisit old haunts, and generally enjoy what's probably my favorite city in the world.  The days running up to Christmas were great, as my Dad from Colorado came to visit, which was especially nice because I wasn't able to make it home for Thanksgiving.  Boomer, of course, had a great time over the holidays--sledding, opening gifts, and just being generally goofy and adorable.  My birthday was also a lot of fun--The Wife kept teasing me, because now that I've turned 35 my travel insurance has gone up $ 15!  But she was brave enough to join me and friends from Toronto and near Ottawa for some mini-putt and laser tag prior to the New Year's countdown.

Although it was hard to leave Canada, especially knowing I wouldn't see Boomer & The Wife again for three weeks (except via FaceTime), there's a lot I'd been looking forward to getting back to.  And on the long journey back, I had a day free in L.A. and got to take a short tour to see some things like Rodeo Drive, the Walk of Stars, Venice Beach, and more.

All in all, 2012 was a year of some major transitions, but they were worth it, and 2013 promises to be even better.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I Am the Champion! (of a Fantasy Football league . . .)

It was a stressful Championship game, as I trailed by 7 after the first week; but my opponent faltered in the second week (scoring only 68 points), and I ended up cruising to a 205-180 victory.  My first championship after four years of playing fantasy football; let the dynasty begin!

Realms Toowoomba Recap # 16 [RPG]

[5 Mirtul 1372]

A cold, heavy rain falls as the adventurers finish some final errands in Mirabar. Fargrim visits the city's shrine to Tymora and speaks with the adventurer-priest Janith about the foreboding Evermoors surrounding Startop Mountain. Cain continues working to create a spear, but the process takes
longer than he would like. Nakor decides to follow up on some leads relating to the strange, nearly dead man the group encountered the previous day, and tells the group he'll catch up with them later along the Long Road. Ellywick receives a folded piece of paper from a young messenger, and sees that it's a handbill
announcing the hanging of the Scourge of Blackford Road at dawn; on the opposite side, the number "2" has been written in blood. That evening, the group assembles at the Sign of the Forgehammer and agrees to attend the execution in the morning.

[6 Mirtul 1372]

When the group arrives, a crowd has assembled around the scaffold set up outside the Hall of Sparkling Stones. After a burly man is executed, the Scourge delivers her final words to Fargrim, stating that he's made a mistake and that he'll never find Grim without her. After her execution, Fargrim departs. A
third convict, a middle-aged woman, is then hung, protesting her innocence the whole time; she's described by a fellow audience-member as a recently-caught murderess named Galaiya.

When the event is over, Cain heads to the shrine of Tymora and learns that rumors have spread of more victims along the Long Road suffering from the strange flesh-rotting condition.

Before leaving Mirabar, the group leaves word at the Sign of the Forgehammer for Mellia. In the stables outside the inn, Trigonnis asks the group whether they're taking him with them, but Markus says it's up to the absent Nakor. When Trigonnis protests, Markus tells Trigonnis he doesn't even like him and the
group rides off. Fargrim's horse displays a tendency to suddenly stop and Markus' is known to kick, but so far the others do not notice any problems with their mounts.

The group makes excellent speed on the Long Road, covering two or three times the distance they used to. Towards evening, the group reaches the walled village of Xantharl's Keep. In the darkness and rain, the village makes little impression on the travellers and they head quickly to an inn, the Bear & Black Buckler. Inside, they find a dark, dirty, and decrepit place run by an equally disreputable innkeeper. He manages to wheedle extra money from the adventurers by claiming that room is scarce, and warns them "no matter what, don't go downstairs."

That evening, over a poor meal of roasted potatoes, curiosity gets the better of the group. With Cain dancing a jig as a distraction, Ellywick sneaks down the stairs and encounters a makeshift metal gate barring further access to the darkened basement. When Fargrim joins her later, his Dwarven vision allows him to make out a dusty storeroom and a key mysteriously dangling from a rafter. A low moan emanates from the room, and spooks everyone into heading to their rooms for a night's rest. Strange sounds and phenomena continue through the night, but those who are awake are steadfast in ignoring it.

[7 Mirtul 1372]

The rain and wind continue through the night and reach a terrible strength in the early morning hours. The wind howls through the inn, shaking the building through its sheer power. Effectively trapped for the day, the group decides to investigate the basement further. At Cain's prompting, Fargrim manages to lift
the gate off of its hinges to allow for further investigation. The moaning intensifies, along with whispers of "take the key" and "help me." The group decides to make the innkeeper talk, and he does so reluctantly. He claims that the inn is haunted, and has been so for years. Guests who take the key inevitably head into the hills west of the village and never return, but the key always reappears. He states he installed the gate for the safekeeping of the guests. The group extracts a promise of free accommodation from the innkeeper
in exchange for their freeing the inn of the haunting, along with a promise that he can keep their horses if they never return.

Undeterred, the group returns to the basement. Fargrim resolves to take the key to get to the bottom of this mystery, but just as he reaches out for it a large pounding is heard upstairs. When opened, the front door reveals a wet and windblown Mellia. The group quickly brings her up to speed and returns to the
basement. This time, Fargrim manages to grasp the key; he suddenly begins walking towards and up the stairs, entranced. He quickly heads outside into almost hurricane-level winds, but seems unaffected. Ellywick and Markus are not so lucky, as they tumble head over heels when they try to follow him. In his
heavy armor, Cain manages to stay upright and the group cleverly decides to lash themselves together for safety.

They manage to follow Fargrim as he strides out of Xantharl's Keep and into the hills. He stops in the middle of an ancient, overgrown graveyard in front of a weathered grey mausoleum. The group watches as he walks up to the mausoleum, inserts the key in its door, and tries to turn it--but to no effect, as the lock has long ago rusted shut. A spectral apparition becomes visible in the form of a rage-filled young woman shrieking "open the door, open the door!"

Markus knocks the key out of Fargrim's hand, and the apparition attacks the group. Her unearthly, freezing touch seems to drain the spark of beauty and personality from Ellywick, and even has some effect on the stalwart Cain. The group struggles to decide what to do. Mellia successfully casts and maintains a
spell to discern thoughts in the area, and is almost overwhelmed with a vision of a young woman being locked in the mausoleum as a prank, and collapsing from fear. Although the group isn't sure if it is the right course of action, Mellia magically unlocks and opens the mausoleum door. The apparition fades, emanating a sense of peace, and even the wind becomes calm as sunlight shines through the
Director's Commentary (October 18, 2013)

This session started with a hanging, which is a good way to get people's attention!  I was sad to see the Scourge go out in such a fashion, as I grew to like the NPC and thought she would have made an interesting antagonist.  But as the writer's aphorism goes, you have to murder your darlings.  I actually had a hard time trying to figure out what the justice system would be like in a place like Mirabar, as it's not a topic that's covered in any of the Realms sourcebooks I've read.  Would there be a trial?  Would there be a jury?  Is the death penalty a lawful good punishment?  Etc, etc.  I went with the dramatic result.  The PCs were determined to leave right after the Scourge was executed, so they never witnessed Grim's second act of revenge: the framing of another ally from Fargrim's background, a woman named Galaiya.  The idea with them receiving a handbill about the execution with the bloody number "2" on the back was that they would connect it with the Scourge's earlier statement that Grim would take two pieces off the board in return for their capturing her, but the clue may have been too subtle.  I often find that a difficult aspect of directing: things that appear ominous and obvious to me may quite easily go overlooked by players, who have a lot of things to worry about.  On the other hand, good story-telling shouldn't be too blunt lest it become banal.  The balancing act is much more of an issue when it comes to directing a mystery, such as in Call of Cthulhu, then it is in D&D, but it's still something I think about anytime I have dreams, prophecies, rumors, etc.

The journey south started with a little fun.  When they bought their mounts, I secretly rolled on a table of Horse Quirks from 2nd edition.  Added some nice humor (at least when I remembered to factor it in).

I really liked how the mini-adventure in Xantharl's Keep turned out.  I always try to rely on published descriptions of locations the PCs are going to encounter.  I have the 2nd edition D&D sourcebook The North, which has been invaluable for the campaign.  It had the bit about a ghost haunting the inn in rather broad terms, and I was then able to flesh that out, mostly through improv, to add something memorable to the PCs' visit to the town.  In an awesome bit of synchronicity, the weather I rolled on the random tables from The Silver Marches sourcebook fit perfectly into the spooky story.  In retrospect, Mellia's Detect Thoughts spell probably shouldn't have worked on the ghost, as, like all undead, they're immune to mind-affecting spells.  I missed it at the time, and the story turned out much better for it.

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