13 February 2019

Tolkien trailer

The first trailer for the forthcoming biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien is now available for your viewing pleasure (all 55 seconds of it). You can watch it, and read a bit about the film, here at Screen Rant.

[Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien]

The film focuses on Tolkien's early life (up to and including his time in the Great War). I'm ... cautiously optimistic. I really hope that it does justice to this literary giant.

05 January 2019

Temple of the Flayed Lord

In case you need some inspiration for a new Cthulhu Mythos style cult (also eminently useable for fantasy and historical role-playing games):
Mexican experts say they have found the first temple of the Flayed Lord, a pre-Hispanic fertility god depicted as a skinned human corpse.
The institute said experts found two skull-like stone carvings and a stone trunk depicting the god, Xipe Totec. It had an extra hand dangling off one arm, suggesting the god was wearing the skin of a sacrificial victim.
Priests worshipped Xipe Totec by skinning human victims and then donning their skins. The ritual was seen as a way to ensure fertility and regeneration.
The Popolocas built the temple at a complex known as Ndachjian-Tehuacan between AD 1000 and 1260 and were later conquered by the Aztecs.
More information on the charming Xipe Totec and his ancient Popolocas followers can be found here.

30 December 2018

Conan wanders through Canada

By Crom! This is brilliant: artist Kris Friesen has inserted Conan (the Cimmerian with mighty thews) into a number of murals throughout western Canada (especially Edmonton).

Here’s the barbarian slurping noodles in ancient Khitai, er, I mean China:

And here is Conan—perhaps repenting for his previous praise for hearing the ‘lamentations of the women’—marching in a women’s rights march:

Finally, here he is being splashed in a pool:

I suspect that that mustachioed hipster will soon regret his action…

26 December 2018

Two Decades of Baldur’s Gate

There is a decent article at PC Gamer on the 20th anniversary of the classic computer role-playing game (CPRG) Baldur’s Gate (BG).

I must confess that BG—and the other ‘Infinity Engine’ (IE) AD&D-based CRPGs, including Baldur’s Gate II (BG2), Icewind Dale (IWD), and Planescape: Torment (PST)—have given me a surprising amount of joy since 2000 (when I first played BG). This is despite the fact that these games almost derailed the completion of my PhD 2000-2002.

[A map of the region covered by the original Baldur's Gate game.]

I’m not a fan of CRPGs or video games in general. I’ve never played any massive multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs), like the World of Warcraft. With respect to computers games, I played far too much Civilization during the 1990s. However, I only dabbled with Diablo during that decade, and simply couldn’t get into it. The same applies to most other CRPGs that I’ve tried over the years. But—aside from Neverwinter Nights (NWN)—BG, BG2, PST, and IWD are the exceptions. 
(I like Neverwinter Nights, and I’m glad that there is now an ‘Enhanced Edition’ version that I can play on my Mac. I especially appreciate the wide range of fan-produced modules for NWN, some of which are superior to the original, rather lacklustre campaign. But I never found NWN as engaging as the IE games. One reason is that I find it far less visually impressive, despite being ‘3-D’ [I’ve never understood the appeal of 3-D in anything: movies, games, etc.]. Another reason is that NWN employs the 3rd edition D&D rules, which I like less than AD&D. But enough of NWN…)

There are a few reasons why I find the classic IE games like Baldur’s Gate to be special. One reason is aesthetic. The music is magnificent. And visually, I find these games beautiful to look at. The screenshots below (with the ‘game information sections’ cropped out) don’t really do justice to how great the games look on a large computer screen:

[The player character in BG is from Candlekeep. Towards the end of BG, the party returns to Candlekeep. Here is the party and some Seers.]

[The party discovers a dragon mural in a dungeon during the Siege of Dragonspear.]

[The party at the top of the Iron Throne headquarters within the city of Baldur's Gate.]

[The symbol of Bhaal burnt onto the surface of the Boareskyr Bridge.]

Another reason why I’m a fan of the IE games are their stories and characters. The BG series and (especially) PST have engaging overarching storylines, with multiple paths to success, including different routes for ‘good’, ‘neutral’, and ‘evil’ inclined characters (as well as for characters of different classes, etc.). To a great extent, the settings in these games are genuine ‘sandboxes’: they have maps with loads of optional encounters, quests, and areas (to be explored or ignored as you wish). Since they have overarching plots, though, there are some ‘necessary’ areas and encounters, but these often can be resolved in different ways.

The IE games also have some wonderful NPCs—both characters that can join your party, as well as minor characters with whom you can interact. Here is one exchange between two party members—Jan Jansen (an irreverent gnome illusionist/thief) and Keldorn (a serious paladin of Torm)—that I think is quite funny:

And since I teach philosophy in the real world, I find amusing this exchange in the town of Trademeet in Baldur’s Gate II:

With respect to the settings for these games—the Sword Coast, Amn, and Icewind Dale of the Forgotten Realms (BG, BG2, and IWD), and the torus city of Sigil within Planescape (PST)—I delight in the ways that they embrace the ‘stew’ of disparate elements that make up ‘D&D’—and somehow make them work. By this I mean such elements as ‘Vancian’ magic-users, Scottish dwarf fighters, ‘Christian-not-Christian’ paladins who associate freely (often in the same adventuring party) with ‘paganistic’ druids, the Great Wheel cosmology, the Blood War (the eternal conflict between Chaotic demons and Lawful devils), and so forth. This all somehow makes sense in these games—and in fact is one of the reasons why I returned to D&D for some of my tabletop gaming after a long absence (most of the 1990s).

And then there are the ‘mods’ (which I believe is short for ‘modifications’, although it may also be short for ‘modules’). The ‘modding’ community—which has been reinvigorated in recent years thanks to Beamdog’s release of ‘Enhanced Editions’ of the IE games—has helped make these games, and especially the Baldur’s Gate series, highly re-playable. Mods can provide new NPCs (including characters to join your party), additions for existing NPCs (e.g., expanded dialogues for party members in BG1), new magic items, new encounters, and even entirely new adventures for your games. Install enough mods and your next BG2 game will be quite different from all previous ones! 

Finally, while I prefer playing tabletop RPGs to CRPGs, there have been times in my life when this wasn’t possible, and the IE games (as well as NWN) were there to fill the void. Even when I am lucky enough to have a regular group, adult life makes getting together for games rather difficult (adulting is tough!). Thankfully, I can ‘dip into’ my Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, or Icewind Dale game for an hour whenever I like. 

So, to Baldur’s Gate I say: happy birthday old friend!

14 December 2018

Jack Vance’s Lyonesse: read it, discuss it, play it

As I’ve mentioned before here, the good people at the Design Mechanism are producing a role-playing game based upon Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy. While the RPG will use the DM’s excellent Mythras system, the game itself will be self-standing (i.e., all of the rules will be in the core Lyonesse book, along with the setting material).

Here is a preview of the cover for the forthcoming DM book:

Vance’s Lyonnesse trilogy is one of my favourite fantasy series of all time. It fuses ‘high fantasy’ with the dark humour and weirdness of Vance’s Dying Earth stories. I’ve read it twice before—once in the early 1990s, and again about sixteen years ago. Upon learning of the DM’s forthcoming game set in the Elder Isles (the mythical lands south of Ireland where the stories take place), I decided to read the trilogy again. I’m now two-thirds of my way through it—I only have Madouc (the final volume) to go.

By happy coincidence, Lyonesse will be discussed at the Tabletop Role-players’ Book Club blog in January (starting on the 2nd). The plan seems to be to read the book (if you haven’t done so already) in December, and then discuss it with other gamers early in the new year.

Especially cool is the fact that the DM’s own Lawrence Whitaker (‘Loz’)—co-author of Mythras and RuneQuest 6, and author of numerous Elric!/Stormbringer RPG books, as well as many other fine things—will be taking part! 

So, gentle readers, do yourself a favour and: (a) read this brilliant trilogy; (b) take part in the January discussions at TTRBC; (c) buy the DM Lyonesse RPG; and (d) have some adventures in a fantastic past-that-never-was.

27 November 2018

New version of the 5e D&D Basic Rules now available

The ‘basic rules’ for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons are now available in a single PDF. Here is what is included: “The Basic Rules runs from levels 1 to 20 and covers the cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard, presenting what we view as the essential subclass for each. It also provides the dwarf, elf, halfling, and human as race options; in addition, the rules contain 120 spells, 5 backgrounds, and character sheets.”

My favourite ‘complete’ but ‘minimal’ version of D&D remains the Moldvay/Cook edition of the B/X (Basic + Expert) rules... 

But the 5e version of ‘Basic D&D’ is probably now my second favourite version. I’m itching to use them to run a 5e version of The Keep on the Borderlands or The Lost City. If only a print version were available! 

In addition to incorporating errata and the like, the new PDF includes a number of (surprisingly evocative) sketches by Richard Whitters. Some samples:

27 October 2018

G+? Isn’t that worse than an F?

The imminent end of Google-plus is now old news. For some interesting thoughts on this development and its potential impact on the role-playing community (especially the ‘old school’ wing) I recommend this post by Melan at his Beyond Fomalhaut blog.

I vaguely recall joining G+ many years ago, but after a few forays into it, I decided that it wasn’t for me. The interface just rubbed me the wrong way. Among other things, posts quickly disappeared and subsequently were difficult to find. For the life of me, I just couldn’t see why anyone thought it was a better platform for discussing RPGs than forums and blogs.

Anyhow, my sympathies to anyone who found G+ helpful, interesting, or fun. People who were fans seem to be migrating to the (unfortunately named IMO) ‘MeWe’ place. I wish them well.

(Speaking of blogs, I really need to update my ‘blog roll’ here. I removed the old one a few months ago—it was too static [I want the version that shows the most recent posts] and out of date [many of the blogs were ‘dead’ or had become focused on topics of little or no interest to me]. I’ll do it some day—I promise! I just need RL to stop stomping on my soul every day…)

24 October 2018

Ancient ship = Eldritch horrors

“More than a mile beneath the surface of the Black Sea, shrouded in darkness, an ancient ship sat for millennia unseen by human eyes — until the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project happened upon its watery grave last year.… [T]he trading vessel plied the waves in the days of Plato and Sophocles, when the city-states of ancient Greece had scattered colonies all around the Black Sea.”

Sometimes a real world news event writes a cool Call of Cthulhu scenario for you…

(Though I’d replace the “Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project” with the “Black Sea Miskatonic Archaeology Project” -- and move everything back to ~1930.)

15 October 2018

Greg Stafford RIP

Greg Stafford passed away on October 11th.
Stafford was the founder of Chaosium—one of the most important companies during the early days of role-playing games (perhaps second only to TSR)—and creator of the acclaimed Pendragon RPG. He helped to create—and provided the setting (Glorantha) for—one of the greatest and most influential RPGs of all time: RuneQuest. In his role at Chaosium during its ‘golden age’, he helped to shape and support two of my all-time favourite RPGs: The Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer. By all reports he was a generous genius. It is hard to believe that another one of the greats from the mythic era of role-playing is gone.

Here is the announcement at Chaosium.

[Part of William Church's map of Glorantha from RuneQuest 2nd ed.] 

04 October 2018

Saga's Sword

This sounds like the beginning of a fantasy epic: a young girl named 'Saga' finds an ancient sword in a lake...

But it actually happened: "An eight-year-old [Saga Vanecek] found an ancient pre-Viking-era [~500 AD] sword while swimming in a lake in Sweden during the summer."

UPDATE (2018-10-22): Saga describes her experience.

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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.