24 December 2019

The Watchmen HBO series is excellent

I wanted to mention this before being completely overwhelmed by the holidays and then forgetting to do so in the new year: HBO’s recent series The Watchmen is excellent and well worth your time.

As I’ve mentioned before here, the original Watchmen is my favourite ‘superhero’ comic series of all time. But I was quite sceptical when HBO announced that it would be producing a series set in the same universe (to take place 34 years after the original story). Unsurprisingly, Alan Moore refused to be associated with it (although Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons was heavily involved). And the promotions for it that I watched over the summer were not terribly inspiring.

I am pleased to report that my misgivings were entirely misplaced. Not only is The Watchmen the best superhero television series that I’ve ever watched, it’s one of the best television series I’ve ever watched simpliciter. Every episode is superb—with episodes 3 (“She Was Killed by Space Junk”), 5 (“Little Fear of Lightning”), 6 (“The Extraordinary Being”) and 8 (“A God Walks into Abar”)—worthy of special mention in terms of innovation and vision.

The whole series ties together extremely well. The ending is refreshingly satisfying: it resolves the main storylines while leaving enough open to permit a second series. Thankfully, the ‘twists’—of which there are many—all make sense. The overall story and Watchmen universe is highly coherent and compelling. And the soundtrack (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) is magnificent.

Apparently, there may not be a second season. As a successful self-contained story, though, The Watchmen doesn’t need one. But I hope that the story continues nonetheless: I want to know the fate of poor Nite Owl!

18 December 2019

Dark Rumblings for the Rise of Skywalker

Based on this review, The Rise of Skywalker sounds like a real mess.

I’ve liked—but not loved—the recent movies well enough. They’ve certainly been an improvement over the prequels! However, the intense feelings they’ve generated amongst some of the fans, especially The Last Jedi, mystify me. (And I simply don’t care enough about Star Wars to learn about the various criticisms and grievances to become ‘de-mystified’…)

I suspect that I’m somewhat unusual in this respect, but of the recent Star Wars films I’ve much preferred the ‘standalone’ films—Rogue One and Solo—to the trilogy. Rogue One in particular is excellent. I suspect that one reason for their superior quality is that they are not embedded in a trilogy that must somehow be ‘epic’ in nature. Their themes are quite different. Moreover, they take place around the time of the original series, which strikes me as a more coherent setting than that of the current trilogy.

Anyhow, perhaps Rise will turn out to be decent after all. I’ll see it eventually in any case. But I’m certainly not ‘invested’ in it. Once the Ewoks first stumbled into the Star Wars universe in The Return of the Jedi, I realized that I was really not a Star Wars fan after all. I like it but I don’t love it. I’ll take Nazgûl over Sith any day.

30 November 2019

Eye of Vecna coming to the big screen?

The possibility of new Dungeons and Dragons film has popped up from time to time for years now (I last mentioned it here in February 2016). But it now looks like a new D&D film will be released in the summer of 2021. Interestingly, according to this report at ComicBook-dot-com, it will feature the infamous artifact 'The Eye of Vecna':
"ComicBook.com can exclusively report that the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons movie currently in development by Paramount will focus on a group of adventurers looking for the Eye of Vecna, a powerful artifact that dates back to the earliest days of the game. Vecna is a powerful lich turned god whose hand and eye (remnants from when Vecna was a mortal) grant unspeakable power. Both the Hand and Eye of Vecna come with a terrible cost - in order to use either artifact, the user must remove their existing eye or hand and then replace it with the artifact.
Vecna was a major entity in the Greyhawk campaign setting [...]"
The movie, alas, will be set in the Forgotten Realms setting rather than the world of Greyhawk, although I suppose that's to be expected given the centrality of the Realms for contemporary D&D.

I don't have high hopes for this film but perhaps I'll be pleasantly surprised. At the very least it can't be any worse than the 2000 one.

Here's the description of the Eye of Vecna from the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide:

The Hand and Eye of Vecna were among the artifacts that most excited (and corrupted?) my young imagination decades ago!

(Thanks to C. Robichaud for the link to the ComicBook-dot-com article.)

19 November 2019

Elric coming to the small screen?

According to Deadline we might see an Elric TV series someday:
“New Republic Pictures’ Brian Oliver and producer Bradley J. Fischer acquired the exclusive rights to all works in Michael Moorcock’s seminal fantasy-horror series The Elric Saga. They are beginning to shop the property for series, with Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead and The Shield) and Prison Break and Star Trek: Discovery‘s Vaun Wilmott attached to adapt the sci-fi fantasy tale.” 
“Fischer and New Republic see the Elric saga — which begins with the 1972 novel Elric of Melniboné, as having cross-platform franchise potential. They are first leaning into the TV series with Mazzara & Wilmott. The novels are sensual and atmospheric sword-and-sorcery tales that center on the title character, a brooding albino warrior who presides over an unruly, decadent island nation. The novels follow Elric on a series of adventures, in which he is betrayed by his cousin, sent into exile and attempts to come to terms with his own humanity. The series comprises 11 novels and a number of short stories and has been adapted into several comics and graphic novels.”
While this wheel looks to be turning, the TV series (if it materializes) will not be happening in the near future.

In contrast, BBC Studios’ adaptation of the Runestaff tetralogy appears to be further along...

(Hat tip to C. Robichaud for the Elric news.)

17 November 2019

Interview with the Mythic Lawrence Whitaker

Gentle readers, as many of you already know, Lawrence Whitaker (‘Loz’) runs the Design Mechanism with Pete Nash. Whitaker and Nash created the Mythras role-playing game together (the immediate successor to RuneQuest 6, also authored by them). In addition to Mythras, and many fine supplements for it (e.g., Mythic Britain), Loz has written numerous excellent RPG books over the past few decades. He’s also a superb gamemaster.

Anyhow, ENworld’s Charles Dunwoody recently interviewed him about his RPG work. Among many interesting things, Loz mentions the forthcoming Lyonesse role-playing game:
“The Lyonesse RPG will be released next year for the system, licensed and approved by Splatterlight Press. It will be self-contained and powered by Mythras. Lawrence described the setting as consisting of an archipelago between England and France that is said to have sunk in the modern age. The RPG spins out of a setting created by Jack Vance. The books are evocative and filled with interesting characters and the RPG will follow suit. It combines traditional European folklore with violent action. The setting has a complex set of magical rules. Some humans can use faerie magic which is a less powerful form. Higher level magic works through demon summoning. The demons work magic on behalf of the sorcerer.”

(The DM’s PDF overview of the Lyonesse RPG can be found here.)

Curious about Mythras? Check out Mythras Imperative for free!

14 November 2019

Another article on the popularity of D&D

There is an article on the current popularity of Dungeons and Dragons in today's New York Times: "In a Chaotic World, Dungeons & Dragons Is Resurgent."  It's a nice piece, and I'm glad that the game is doing so well these days (including with a wider range of kinds of players than ever before).

I certainly like 5th edition far more than the previous two. In fact, I'm running a 5e D&D game right now. But I just wish that other role-playing games would be mentioned sometimes in these articles! It's a bit frustrating that 'RPGs = D&D' for most journalists.

*sigh* 😞

11 November 2019

Cthulhu, utilitarian

Only Existential Comics could portray the great old one Cthulhu as a rational utilitarian:

EC’s series on ‘Philosophers and Dungeons & Dragons’ is simply wonderful. If you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend doing so! (I previously posted on parts I, II, IV, V, VI, and VIII—hmmm, not sure why I didn’t mention parts III or VII here.)

30 October 2019

A thing that went surprisingly well

For once in my life something went more smoothly than I expected it to...

Last Sunday I finally got my Greyhawk campaign going with a couple of old friends. One of the players was in Toronto, the other in Montreal, and I was DMing from Milwaukee. We used 'google hangouts' for the session. The few handouts I used were emailed to them at the appropriate times. We all rolled our own physical dice (rather than use some online dice-roller), etc., and generally relied on the 'theatre of the mind' to follow what was happening.

I was surprised how well it worked. Indeed, I regret having bothered with 'Roll20' years ago (for a short-lived AD&D campaign), which was far more trouble than it was worth. I also regret not trying this much earlier. While I prefer meeting in person (who doesn't?), this was pretty close to that experience.

We all had a great time and plan to continue with regular sessions in the future. However, I suspect that things would not run as smoothly if we were a larger group. Three or four participants probably is optimal for online gaming (at least using a video conference tool).

Anyhow, I hope to write more about this campaign -- and Greyhawk in general -- in the near-ish future.

27 October 2019

Past visions of the future: Germany 1930

I’ve always been fascinated by how people in the past envisioned the future. (Here’s a post from 2015 on how some 19th Century French artists thought life would be like in 2000.)

So I was delighted to stumble upon this article: “Wonderful Futuristic Visions of Germany By Artists In 1930.”

The pictures are all quite delightful, but this one struck me as especially prophetic:

Here is the caption:
Wireless Private Phone and Television.
Everyone now has their own transmitter and receiver and can communicate with friends and relatives. But the television technology has also improved so much that people can speak to each other in real time. Transmitters and receivers are no longer bound to their location, but are always placed in a box of the size of a camera.
These optimistic visions of the future are especially poignant given the hell into which Germany would descend in only a few years.

19 October 2019

Role-playing games and self-discovery

I thought that I would mention a couple of recent first-person essays on role-playing games in the popular press. Both essays reflect on how playing RPGs helped the authors learn about themselves and develop in important ways.

Recently in Vox: “The best $1.16 I ever spent: a set of loaded Dungeons & Dragons dice” by Jessica Xing.

And in the Washington Post: “How my role-playing game character showed me I could be a woman” by Joan Moriarity.

I found both essays rather interesting. They were written from perspectives radically different from my own. Nonetheless, I can relate to the power of role-playing games in self-discovery and self-development. I know that I would’ve been a very different person—less imaginative, far more shy—had I not opened up the blue ‘Holmes’ Basic Set of Dungeons and Dragons (the one with chits!) many decades ago…

24 September 2019

OSRIC fanzine: Saving Throw

Miss Fight On! or Knockspell? I know I do!
Well Saving Throw is here to give you that ‘old school’ thrill again.

Here’s the blurb (from DrivethruRPG):
Saving Throw — a fundraiser fanzine to help James D. Kramer
You may know Jim Kramer from his Usherwood Publishing modules & supplements, or his work helping produce works like OSRIC and Knockspell. You probably didn’t know Jim had multiple brain surgeries to remove tumors, and the battle has gotten much harder. To help Jim and his family during this difficult time, a group of his friends, collaborators, and first edition enthusiasts banded together to make this fundraiser fanzine, where all royalties go directly to Jim and his family. 
This 60+ page issue of Saving Throw contains:
Introduction by Ron Redmond
Island Tables - random generation and inspiration tool by Steve Smith aka “EOTB”
Sorcerer’s Stone - dungeon level by Keith Sloan
Trolls of the Simpolo Swamps - leech-mated trollish variations by Joseph Browning
Perladon Manor - adventure module by Gabor Lux
By The Runes - fiction by Dan Rasaiah
Magic Item Intrinsic Material Values - variant magic item value rules by Guy Fullerton
Goblin Garbug Cavalry - new monster by Andrew Hamilton
The Tiled Labyrinth - mini-dungeon by Guy Fullerton
Lotus Blossoms - magical and special properties of these exotic flora by Keith Sloan
Burly the Baker - ready-to-use NPC and cantrips by Gary Francisco
Darkworld Troll - new monster by Bryan Fazekas
Offig’s Tomb - treasure map by Steve Smith aka “EOTB”
Lizard Man Lair - outdoor module and new monsters by Steve Smith aka "EOTB"
Mephitic Geysers of the Intaglio Rift - treasure map by Allan T. Grohe, Jr. (“grodog")
The Mere Beneath - dungeon level by Guy Fullerton, Allan T. Grohe, Jr. (“grodog"), and Henry A. Grohe
Sarendra’s Crew & Kelurrin’s Crew - ready-to-use NPC parties by Allan T. Grohe, Jr. (“grodog")
Rescue from the Sanctuary of the Leopard Goddess - dungeon module by Matthew Riedel
Featuring illustrations by Jimm Johnson, James D. Kramer, Wind Lothamer, Gabor Lux, Denis McCarthy, Peter Szmer (soon), Del Teigeler, and Alex Zisch. 
For the lucky price of $13, you get two treasure maps, three referee tools, five new spells, six modules, at least nine new monsters, twelve ready-to-use NPCs, and more. Plus the knowledge that your purchase helps a family during a difficult time.
Thank you!
I have it, I’ve looked it over, and it’s the real deal.  Fight On!

Also: check out the OSRIC webpage.

16 September 2019

Mythic Babylon cover

My friend and gaming colleague Chris Gilmore (‘Hartmut Hare-Eye’) is the co-author of the forthcoming Mythras setting book Mythic Babylon (it will be part of the Design Mechanism's 'Mythic Earth' series). The book won’t be coming out until next year, alas, but the Design Mechanism has previewed its cover. It looks suitably epic:

I know little about Babylonian mythology aside from the Epic of Gilgamesh (a novelization of which I read years ago). So I’m really looking forward to this, not only for the gaming content but for educational purposes as well.

08 September 2019

Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophers: The Sci-Fi Debate

It’s been a while, but there is a new installment (number VIII) of “Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophers” at Existential Comics!

Read the whole thing here.

Kudos to Dungeon Master de Beauvoir for adhering to the old school D&D philosophy of permitting ‘science fiction’ elements into her campaign.

(A pity, though, that the comic doesn’t mention the ‘classic’ role-playing game Cyborg Commando!)

28 August 2019

The Lost City (B4) to rise again

Cool! The fourth ‘Original Adventures Reincarnated’ book from Goodman Games will be The Lost City (B4). 

From GG's announcement:
“First published in 1982, B4: The Lost City was designed as a stand-alone adventure for use with the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set. Author Tom Moldvay wrote the adventure with the intent of teaching novice gamemasters how to craft and run a dungeon. For that reason, many areas of the original adventure—including much of the titular city itself—are left undefined. And if you’ve read any of our earlier releases in the OAR series, you know that those areas are not going to be left blank for the Fifth Edition translation!
OAR #4: The Lost City will combine scans of the original edition of the module with 5E conversions and new material, as we’ve done with prior books in the OAR series. The conversion is being handled by Chris Doyle and Tim Wadzinski, the same team responsible for OAR #1: Into the Borderlands and OAR #2: The Isle of Dread.
At this time, the target release date is June 2020, but we will keep you updated as time passes. And not just about the release date—we’ll also be giving you sneak peeks and behind the scenes info on the book!”
I'm very happy with what Goodman Games did with B1-2 and X1. I'm looking forward to their treatment of S3 (Expedition to the Barrier Peaks) and am thrilled that B4 is now in the queue.

It's a bit odd, though, that Goodman Games will be lurching from the Basic/Expert (B/X) Dungeons and Dragons line to the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons line for S3, and then back to B/X for B4.

[Some adventurers versus 'Zargon'. Picture by Jim Holloway]

Also, it’s a pity they're skipping B3, Palace of the Silver Princess. It would've been nice to have a reprint of the 'forbidden' version along with the 'expurgated' version! (For an interesting discussion of B3, check out “The Day the Old School Died” at the Alexandrian blog.)

[The original orange cover version of B3. Picture by Erol Otus.]

13 August 2019

OSRIC and Dangerous Dungeons

Some good news for old-school gamers! Thanks to ‘Pres-Gas’, there is now a Wiki for OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation)—the ‘retro-clone’ for 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

Also available: the material for Dangerous Dungeons! For over a decade now Kellri has been putting together a massive supplement for OSRIC (+ 1e AD&D). I wasn’t sure if it would ever be made available to the wider public—but now it is! (I made a small contribution to DD: a system of ‘background professions’ for characters, originally posted at this blog.)

Enjoy, gentle readers!

[Trampier's picture of a dragon vs. some kobolds in the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide]

09 August 2019

The Second Age of Middle-earth—and only the Second Age!

Here is further confirmation that the forthcoming Amazon television series set in Middle-earth will take place during the Second Age (as recently mentioned at this blog):
Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey, who is supervising the show’s development, told German fansite Deutsche Tolkien that the estate has refused to allow the series to be set during any period other than the Second Age of Middle-earth.
Spanning 3,441 years, the Second Age begins after the banishment of the dark lord Morgoth and ends with the first demise of Sauron, Morgoth’s servant and the primary villain in The Lord of the Rings, at the hands of an alliance of elves and men.
One advantage of having the series take place during the Second Age (noted by Shippey in the article) is that it gives the writers more room to develop stories and characters than they would have if the series were to take place during the later part of the Third Age (the time of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) or the First Age (the time of The Silmarillion). In contrast to the First and Third Ages, Tolkien’s writings on the Second Age primarily are timelines and overviews of key historical events. However, the series—thankfully!—will be constrained by the events that Tolkien did note (so the series, Shippey notes, “must not contradict anything which Tolkien did say”).

This is perhaps the best combination: a set of fixed events ensuring that the series can ‘stick the landing’ (the first defeat of Sauron in the Last Alliance would be a great way to end the series) while allowing genuine ‘creative room’ for the writing team.

So I remain cautiously optimistic about this…

(The linked article’s headline is rather misleading, I should note, as it seems to ignore the plethora of ‘plots’ throughout Tolkien’s many writings on Middle-earth. Moreover, if the series is set during the Second Age, it is ridiculously incorrect to claim that it’s an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.)

[Celebrimbor forging a ring of power. Cover art for ICE's Treasures of Middle-earth by Angus McBride.]

06 August 2019

Tales From the Sorcerer Under the Mountain

I’m not really a fan of Kickstarter these days, but I made an exception for this one: Newt Newport’s Tales from the Sorcerer Under the Mountain (from D101 Games).

It consists of two things:

  1. A set of old school rules—namely, a lightly tweaked version Swords and Wizardry (which is itself a ‘clone’ of 0e D&D), not Crypts and Things (so expect clerics, dwarves, and so forth).
  2. An adventure—called The Sorcerer Under the Mountain—with stats for both S&W and 5th edition D&D.

Okay, I need another 0e D&D clone like I need a hole in the head...

But… the adventure is inspired by the distinctly British style of fantasy role-playing of the early 1980s, as manifested in such products as the classic Fighting Fantasy adventure books, early White Dwarf magazines, the U1-3 AD&D modules, and the like.

Even though I grew up in Canada, I very much appreciate this aesthetic. Fighting Fantasy books were quite ubiquitous there—you could buy them in most bookshops—and helped me pass many afternoons and evenings when I couldn’t get together with my friends to play D&D or MERP. Also, the gaming store at which I purchased most of my early supplies (“Fads” in London Ontario) stocked White Dwarf, which always seemed like the ‘cool’ alternative to Dragon.

The title ‘The Sorcerer Under the Mountain’ seems like a clear homage to the Fighting Fantasy book The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (which I recall as the most frustrating of the FF books—I don’t think I ever ‘won’ it). So for that reason alone I’m looking forward to checking it out!

[The Warlock by Russ Nicholson -- one of my favourites!]

04 August 2019

Coddefut’s Stipule: a Lyonesse adventure

As I’ve mentioned a few times here, I’m really looking forward to the forthcoming Mythras-based Lyonesse FRPG from the Design Mechanism. While the FRPG likely will not appear this year, there now is a ready-to-run Lyonesse adventure available: Coddefut’s Stipule. It can be run using the core Mythras rules (or the freely available Mythras Imperative).

Here’s the DM blurb:
What is afoot in Silkspindle Tower?
A small town on the Dahaut coast has a distinct problem: its fishermen are going missing, vanishing from the seas with their boats and catches, never to be seen again. People are scared; could this have something to do with the wizard Coddefut who once lived in the tower? Never! He disappeared 20 years before, so perhaps this is mere coincidence.
But Moribund, the devious burghermeister of the town, sees this as an opportunity. There are several individuals in the community who are especially vexatious to him, and this is a chance to prove that he, Moribund, is not a man to be vexed. Thus, these persons of interest have been gathered together and ordered, as a matter of civic duty, to venture out onto Coddefut's abandoned island, and investigate.
Coddefut's Stipule offers an introduction to the incredible world of Lyonesse, as described in Jack Vance's acclaimed fantasy trilogy: 'Suldrun's Garden', 'The Green Pearl', and 'Madouc'. The adventure is also a taster for the Lyonesse roleplaying game being produced by The Design Mechanism, and gives a sneak peak at some of the wonderful rules and magic the game will include to simulate Jack Vance's inimitable style.
Complete with 6 pregenerated characters, Coddefut's Stipule is fully compatible with the Mythras (and Mythras Imperative) rules, and is ready for play.
I’ve skimmed the adventure and it looks very good. The beginning is something of a ‘railroad’, but that’s fine for a ‘one shot’ (it could be reworked for a proper campaign). The pregenerated PCs are all quite distinctive and colourful, exactly the kinds of protagonists one would expect in a story by Vance. The 'Vancian charts' for town names, inn/tavern names, landlords, and meals are great, as are the sample fairy spells. Overall the adventure has a pungent Vancian flavour!

01 August 2019

Pathfinder 2nd edition

The second edition of Pathfinder has been released. I'll be curious to see how it fares in the market, given that the entire point of the original Pathfinder was to serve as a 'clone' (or 'almost-clone') of 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons. What is the role of PF 2e now that it is no longer a variant of 3e D&D? I guess it's to be a rules-heavier alternative to D&D for players who like 'crunch' (not that 5e is 'rules light' exactly, but it's certainly 'lighter' than any official version of D&D published since 1999).

There is a helpful review of 2e PF at EN World. (Hat tip: C. Robichaud.)

From the review: "A character is built out of feats..."

Aaaand I'm out.

30 July 2019

Númenor coming to the telly

This Rotten Tomatoes article goes over what is known publicly at this stage about Amazon’s future Middle-earth television series.

Some key points (for me at least):

1. Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey and concept artist John Howe are involved.
2. The series will take place in the Second Age.
3. The series will (most likely) focus on Númenor over other regions of Middle-earth (as I suspected in an earlier post).
4. Sauron will be a major character, perhaps with his Nazgul serving him whilst still (largely) human (i.e., 'pre-wraith').
5. Other possible characters: Celebrimbor, Ar-Pharazôn, Elendil, Elrond, Galadriel, and Gil-Galad. (And of course there is a chance that everyone’s favourite rhymer, Tom Bombadil, might make an appearance—hopefully in song! /s)

It would be a dream-come-true if the series covered:

a. The rise of Númenor to great power.
b. The forging of the rings of power by Celebrimbor and Sauron (the latter in his fair guise as ‘Annatar’).
c. The War of the Elves and Sauron (during which Eregion is destroyed, Celebrimbor slain, and Sauron ultimately defeated by the Elves under Gil-Galad with the aid of Númenor).
d. The decline of Númenor—ultimately leading to the capture of Sauron and Sauron’s subsequent corruption of Ar-Pharazôn.
e. The invasion of the Undying Lands by the Armada of Ar-Pharazôn: Númenor is destroyed, but the Faithful escape and join the Númenorean colonists in Middle-earth; there the Kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor are established.
f. The War of the Final Alliance, with the Men of Gondor and Arnor allied with the remaining Elves against a surviving Sauron (who no longer can assume a fair form) and his hordes of orcs, trolls, and evil men (including the ‘Black Númenoreans’ of Umbar).

Such a series—if done well—would be amazing. May the Valar will it!

26 July 2019

The Dungeon Masters are now the Professors

Fellow philosopher—and fantasy fan and role-playing gamer—Christopher Robichaud is senior lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Apparently he has quite the office!

[Photo of Robichaud in his domain from here.]

Here is his explanation of his engagement with popular culture:
As a philosopher and ethicist, why is pop culture a part of your work?    I sometimes joke that philosophy is wasted on philosophers. It's only half a joke. I love the discipline. I love my colleagues who are professional philosophers writing mostly for professional philosophers. There's so much good that philosophy can do in the public, at large, but you sort of have to meet them halfway. So, my way of meeting folks halfway is by saying, "These popular cultural things that you love—Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead or Dungeons & Dragons or superheroes—there are some interesting philosophical ideas here."  

And here he mentions his ongoing D&D game:
Any Easter eggs in the office? Anything hidden that people wouldn't notice?    In the corner, there are a bunch of Dungeons & Dragons books; I run Dungeons & Dragons game out of the Kennedy School. A couple times a month, people—including a Cambridge city councilor—play with me and a bunch of the students.  

Living the academic nerd dream!

Christopher edited the volume Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy and authored this blog’s review of Curse of Strahd.

24 July 2019

Rutger Hauer RIP

Rutger Hauer -- no doubt best known for his nuanced portrayal of the replicant 'Roy Batty' in Blade Runner -- has passed away at the age of 75. (More information here.)

Here is a scene -- the death speech of Roy Batty -- that is forever seared into my memory.


19 July 2019

Alan Moore retires

More than any other author, Alan Moore transformed the comic book genre from something (generally perceived to be) for ‘kids’ and ‘teens’ to a medium capable of telling adult stories (often quite dark, disturbing, and thought-provoking).

Now, it seems, he is done.

I’ve only read a fraction of Moore’s work—I’m not exactly a ‘comics’ guy, though I do enjoy them occasionally, and read many of the ‘greats’ (Moore, Gaiman, Miller, etc.) during the 1980s and 1990s. But I’ve probably read more of Moore’s work than that of any other ‘graphic novel’ author.

And I vividly recall reading The Watchmen series when it was first released in 1987—I was in high-school at the time—and being completely blown away by it. The Watchmen remains, in my view, the greatest single superheroes story ever told.

08 July 2019

The Spider Cult of Mirkwood: a summary of adventures 1–6


- Some of these summaries link to longer posts.
- The full index—including character profiles, campaign notes, etc.—is here.
- The regional maps are by Peter Fenlon (from ICE's Mirkwood).
- The pictures of Radagast and Rhosgobel also are from ICE's Mirkwood.
- The picture of the basilisk is from C7's Rhovanion Region Guide.

1. The Spider Orb (May 2946).

The company meets for the first time in Esgaroth. They agree to help the villagers of nearby Ulgarstat with their troubles. In doing so, the party discovers both giant intelligent spiders and a black glassy stone with eldritch writing on it—all within a nearby but dark corner of Mirkwood.

1.5. Fellowship phase in Esgaroth (May-June 2946).

The company learns something about the black orb and its malevolent nature. They subsequently formulate a plan to journey to the Wood elf town of Celebannon, to consult with the Sindarin sage Luinwen who dwells there.

2. Into Mirkwood and Back Again (Mid-late June 2946).

The company journeys to Celebannon on some merchant rafts. There, within the inn ‘Dindraug’, they meet the Lake-man scout Rothaar One-Leg. They travel with Rothaar into the depths of Mirkwood, and help the scout recover the merchant Thal Eolsen’s chest from goblin brigands and a troll whilst rescuing a comely caravan guard. The company returns to Celebannon whilst being followed by nefarious spiders. In Celebannon they learn more about the black orb from Luinen.

2.5 Another Fellowship phase in Esgaroth (Late June – late August 2946).

Hengil (following the advice of Luinwen) decides that the black orb—a malevolent artefact related somehow to Ungoliant—should be rendered unto Radagast the Brown for safekeeping. Also, Ulvmund learns the location of his family ancestral home—razed by Smaug 170 years earlier—from the merchant Thal Eolsen.

3. To Bar-en-Dindol and Beyond (September 2946).

The company travels from Esgaroth to Dale, and then northwest from Dale to the ruins of Bar-en-Dindol—the ancient tower of Ulvmund’s ancestors. There they encounter vicious wargs, at least one ghost, and recover the ancient sword of the Lords of the Galmund family.

4. The Grey Mountain Narrows (September 2946).

The company leaves Bar-en-Dindol and travels along the Men-i-Mithrin (‘Grey Road’)—between the northern eaves of Mirkwood and the southern ridges of the Grey Mountains—and come across an ancient dwarf statue looking sternly south, as well as several living dwarves (Hár, Borri, and Snorri) fighting a band of goblins. After helping the dwarves, the party is taken to the secret hideout of the dejected dwarf lord Frár (‘the beardless’). The company wins a riddle contest against the rescued dwarves, and acquires a dwarf companion—Tholin the trader—for their journey to the Old Ford. While the company journeys to the shack of Amfossa the Trapper—which is located at the conjunction of the Mithlin (Greylin) and Langwell rivers at the head of the Anduin—they encounter, and successfully drive off, some vicious wargs, including a large one that had tracked them from the ruins of Bar-en-Dindol.

5. Down the Anduin (October 2946).

The company rests for several days at the enchanted shack of Amfossa the Trapper. They then journey south in a raft guided by Narlin the northman trader. Whilst drifting along the great river, the companions spot a giant kingfisher—the Kingfisher Lord—before arriving in the small town of northmen traders known as Maethelburg (located where the Sirros river joins the great Anduin). Tholin guides the adventurers to the ‘Blue Giant’ inn and the ‘Golden Foam’ tavern. There the Dúnedan Warden Hengil learns of the brigand Cruac, as well as of a giant in the wilds who challenges all he encounters to games of riddles. 

From Maethelburg the company journeys by foot to the Old Ford. At the ‘Hall of the Crossing’ the companions learn that many Beorning and Woodmen travelers and families have disappeared in recent months. Tholin says farewell, and the party continues south. They encounter an enigmatic old man with a long white beard, dressed in a white cloak, who does not identify himself to the party—but gestures oddly at them, filling their hearts with courage. This proves to be a boon, as the next day the companions stumble upon a vile basilisk—a terrible creature from ancient times that dwells in the hidden corners of Mirkwood and the surrounding wilderness. Ulvmund is paralyzed and Hartmut poisoned by the noxious breath of the boar-sized reptile before it is finally slain by Hengil. 

Battered and sickened, the three adventurers stagger into Rhosgobel two days later, where they are healed by Radagast the Brown.

5.5. Fellowship Phase in Rhosgobel (Winter 2946-47).

Radagast takes the spider orb from the party and buries it in his hallowed grove; the grove’s enchantments, the wizard believes, will contain the stone’s malevolent aura. He explains that the stone seems to be connected to an ancient spider cult of the Woodmen. This cult supposedly disappeared with the rise of the Necromancer almost two millennia ago, but (clearly) seems to have returned. 

The companions winter in a stone cottage within the Woodmen village, near the wizard’s home. Hengil receives a book of lore from the wizard, while Hartmut and Ulvmund receive special herb pouches. Hengil and Ulvmund try to hunt with the woodmen but fail miserably; Hartmut, however, learns to prepare healing salves. 

Radagast and the companions are visited by Arciryas (a scholar from Gondor, and student of Saruman). Radagast tells Arciryas that Saruman has been traveling about the Anduin Vale throughout the past autumn and summer searching for something—the party infers that it was Saruman whom they had met earlier in their travels!

6. The Barrow of the Spider Cult (March 2947)

As spring approaches Radagast tells the companions that some of his owl friends have reported strange happenings at an ancient Barrow of the Woodmen to the north. Giant spiders and cloaked Woodmen have been going into and out of the barrow with great frequency. Armed with a dagger of Númenor—a gift from the wizard—the party agrees to investigate. They stop at Woodmen Town en route. There they stay at ‘The Gentle Leaf’ inn and meet the dwarf Bofri (son of Bofur). Hengil learns from the Woodmen that many of their kin have disappeared in recent months. 

At the barrow the company encounters woodmen cultists—including one, Bodaric, capable of using dark sorcery, and who poisoned Hengil with his words alone—and a deft spider. Within Bodaric’s lair the party finds a map of central Mirkwood—a black spider symbol is located at the head of the Gûlduin River. After eliminating the cultists, the company discovers a vile shrine with another black orb upon an altar. The party takes the orb, and heads back to Rhosgobel. 

During their trip they come across the burnt remnants of a Woodmen cottage; the company rescues a young woman, Varya, who describes an attack by cultists and spiders. The companions take her with them to Rhosgobel.

6.5 Fellowship Phase in Rhosgobel (late March to early April 2947)

The companions meet with Radagast and the Sindarin lord, Haldir of Lorien. At this conference the party learns more about the ancient spider cult from Haldir; they also learn that the black tower at the head of the Gûlduin River is ‘Sarn Goriwing’ (Sindarin: ‘Abhorrent Spray’s Stone’). Hengil realizes that this is the tower from his prophetic dream in Rivendell! Radagast recommends that the company investigate this tower and try to end the threat posed by the cult. To aid the characters, Haldir gives them three Elven cloaks, some Elven rope, and a map of an ancient Wood Elf trail through the Mountains of Mirkwood. Radagast asks one of his Raven friends—‘Quesse’—to accompany the party and act as a scout for them.

16 June 2019

Akratic Wizardry is 10 years old

It’s hard for me to believe it, but I started this blog ten years ago today.

Over the past decade the blog has received almost a million page views (930,000). After the first year or so, the blog usually has received 6,000 – 11,000 page views per month. One month it received 23,570! (The second highest was 13,387, so that one month was anomalous.) A few months the blog ‘only’ received around 5,000 page views (which still seems like a lot to me). 

I’m amazed and grateful that so many people have bothered to visit and read my scribblings. I certainly haven’t been very disciplined in maintaining this blog (among other things, I still have to finish a few of my campaign logs). But I definitely plan to keep posting here so long as I feel the need to procrastinate—err … express my views on various fantasy and science-fiction novels, movies, television shows, role-playing games, and so forth.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting over the years!

07 June 2019

A new Mythras Companion and a future Lyonesse scenario

A new thing for Mythras! It’s the Mythras Companion.

Here is the description from the good folks at the Design Mechanism:
A compilation of additional rules and mechanics for Mythras, taken from several previous supplements and created specially for the Companion itself. Inside you will find rules for tactical combat using a battlegrid and miniatures; rules for sanity and corruption; abstract rules for vehicles of all kinds; a brand new system for resolving social conflict; and detailed rules for handling pursuits and chases.
The Mythras Companion is a handy resource for every Mythras GM, with plenty of new material to enhance your scenarios and campaigns.
While the Companion looks great—especially the rules for social conflict, sanity, and corruption—what I’m really excited about in the world of Mythras is the forthcoming Lyonesse game. So this item from the Design Mechanism newsletter caught my eye:
Coddifut's Stipule is a special scenario set in Jack Vance's captivating world of Lyonesse. Created for the 2019 UK Games Expo convention, the adventure concerns mysterious goings-on in the abandoned tower of the magician Coddifut. Why have local fishermen gone missing? What has happened to Coddifut, himself missing for some 20 years; why does Moribund the Burghermeister dislike you so much?
The scenario is 100% compatible with Mythras, and contains some specialist rules taken from the forthcoming Lyonesse RPG, to help create that unique Vancian feel. Six pre-generated characters are included, along with some sample spells for the characters able to use magic.
The scenario is not available yet (*sigh*), but Design Mechanism plans to release it in the near future (yay!).

06 June 2019

Baldur’s Gate III is coming (and other BG news)

I came across this promo trailer for Baldur’s Gate III this morning. The game is being produced by a company called Larian Studies. (I don’t know anything about them, but then I haven’t really followed the computer role-playing scene for the past fifteen years or so.) I hope that it has nothing to do with Bhaal (the Realms’ ‘god of murder’) or the Bhaalspawn—that vein was exhausted by the original series. Perhaps (based on the trailer) it concerns a plot against the city involving mind flayers? That would be interesting.

I’ve expressed my fondness for the Baldur’s Gate series before here. I don’t enjoy most CRPGs that I’ve tried, but there was a batch of these games produced two decades ago—the ‘Infinity Engine’ games: BG, BG2, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment—that were so amazing that I’ve returned to them time and time again over the years (my flagging interest boosted by the recent ‘Enhanced Edition’ versions of the games, as well as the plethora of ‘mods’ that are available for them, especially BG and BG2).

Anyhow, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with this. I don’t think the world ‘needs’ a BG3, but perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

[Picture of Viconia by Lius Lasahido from Heroes of Baldur’s Gate]

Also in Baldur’s Gate news: this impressive campaign setting and adventure sequence, covering levels 1-6, called Heroes of Baldur’s Gate (written by James Ohlen, lead designer of BG1 and BG2). While it uses the 5th edition D&D rules, it’s set right after the original game (1369 Dale Reckoning), and features many of the key companions, NPCs, and organizations from it: Imoen, Minsc, Viconia, Edwin, the Zhentarim, the Shadow Druids, and so forth. To be clear: the player characters are assumed to have no connection to the original campaign.

Finally, there is the forthcoming Wizards’ campaign set in Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus.

[The alternative cover for Descent into Avernus]

I much prefer Greyhawk over the Forgotten Realms for my D&D games these days (for reasons I hope to explain in a future post). So I was delighted to find that Ghosts of Saltmarsh is explicitly set in the world of Greyhawk. But I have a real soft spot for the city of Baldur’s Gate and the surrounding Sword Coast—pretty much entirely due to those classic Infinity Engine CRPGs. If I ever run a Forgotten Realms D&D campaign again, I’ll almost certain use Heroes for it. (Nostalgia: it’s a hell of a drug!)

30 May 2019

Ghosts of Saltmarsh: some initial impressions

I obtained the Ghosts of Saltmarsh book a few days ago. I haven't had a chance to delve into it in detail, but here are a few initial impressions.

First, it includes a solid 'mini-setting': Saltmarsh and the surrounding territory (the southernmost portion of the Kingdom of Keoland, roughly 18 leagues north-south, 25 leagues east-west). The setting has a lot of potential for expansion by DMs. Regions that can be fleshed out by creative DMs include: portions of the Hool Marshes and the Dreadwood, all of the Drowned Forest, the Silverstand Forest, some settlements (Seaton and Burle), and ... the ruins of the Tower of Zenopus! Yes, the sample dungeon from the original Holmes Basic D&D Set is given a location here, although it's not described in any detail. However, the brief description does align pretty closely with Holmes' description (but with 'Saltmarsh' replacing the original 'Portown').

The town of Saltmarsh is described in some detail. Three different factions -- each of which are represented in the ruling council -- are described ('traditionalists', 'loyalists', and the secret 'Scarlet Brotherhood' [!]). It looks like a great base for a low-level campaign: it has enough going on to keep the interest the players, including NPCs with whom to interact, but not too much to overwhelm them (or the DM).

The region is clearly situated within the World of Greyhawk, which is a refreshing change from the Forgotten Realms. (I'm not a FR-hater -- and I think that the Sword Coast region is a decent area for D&D campaigns -- but I find Greyhawk to be a much better setting overall. Also, it feels 'fresher' given how much has been produced already for the FR.) The Kingdom of Keoland and the Hold of the Sea Princes, including the conflict between them, are outlined. I hope that this signals that WotC will be expanding other parts of the WoG in future products.

Seven adventures are included. I'm only familiar with the original U1-3 AD&D modules (The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater, and The Final Enemy).The others are from Dungeon magazine. All have sea/coast themes. Wisely, in my view, U3 is presented as a higher-level adventure (it states that it's for 4-6 seventh-level PCs), with two of the Dungeon adventures inserted between it and U2. The first adventure (U1) is for first-level characters, and the last one is for eleventh-level characters. I'm sceptical that there are enough adventures included in the book to use them exclusively for a 1-11 level campaign -- likely the DM will need to add a few additional ones in order to fill in some of the 'gaps'. But the book includes suggestions for incorporating some of the adventures from Tales from the Yawning Portal -- which is my other favourite WotC adventure book. Indeed, Saltmarsh and Portal are the kinds of adventure books that I (very much) prefer over WotC's usual 'adventure path' books. I find collections of adventures that can be run on their own or combined as the DM sees fit to be more useful than a series of tightly connected adventures meant to cover 10+ PC levels.

Aesthetically, the art and layout are really nice overall. The cover (by Grzegorz Rutkowski) is striking and dynamic. The maps (by Dyson Logos and Mike Schley) are attractive and (more importantly) clear.

So my initial impression of Ghosts of Saltmarsh is positive -- very positive. I'd love to see more products like this one and Yawning Portal from WotC for 5e D&D...

20 May 2019

Game of Thrones concludes

Some thoughts on the ending of the Game of Thrones...

[Spoilers below!]

So that’s that. While I think that the last two seasons were the weakest of the series I also think that they were pretty solid overall (a ‘B+’ grade, in my judgement, as opposed to the ‘A+’ for seasons 1-4, and the ‘A-‘ for seasons 5-6). I certainly enjoyed watching them, and remain immensely grateful that this series was produced. (My grade 8 self, doodling warriors and wizards in the margins of his class notebooks, could never have dreamed of an eight-season television epic like this.)

Yes, seasons seven and eight felt rushed compared to the earlier seasons. There’s no denying that. Sometimes things happened too quickly, characters’ motivations were inadequately explained, and so forth.

And I’m disappointed about how the whole Night King story unfolded. An existential threat that had been built up for the past seven seasons seemed to be resolved in an overly tidy way (with Arya acting as ‘ninja Isildur’ vis-à-vis the Night King’s ‘Sauron’). We never learned anything about the Night King’s motivations, why he wanted to kill the Three-eyed Raven (Bran), and so forth. Even a little exploration of the Night King’s reasons for doing what he’s been doing for the past several millennia would’ve helped. Surely Bran (qua Three-Eyed Raven) would know—and be able to tell us—something? (At the same time, though, I don’t know how that storyline could’ve been resolved in a truly satisfying way. So at least I was surprised that the show did it in the first half of the final season—I was expecting it to happen in the final episode.)

Despite those criticisms (and other smaller ones), I think the series had a solid ending. I wasn’t perfect but it was solid.

Daenerys Targaryen’s decision to be ruthlessly destructive in the penultimate episode struck me as appropriate (though I would’ve had her attack the Red Keep directly first, had I written the episode). I think that one of the main reasons that episode has proven to be so polarizing is that many people misinterpreted her character—badly. I also think people were upset that Cersei did not receive her proper comeuppance—but that’s one of the main themes of GoT, namely, that just deserts are rarely dealt.

I also thought that it was appropriate for Jon Snow to be the one to kill Daenerys. (I was worried that it would be Arya—I’m so glad I was wrong!) And I was sure that Jon would not become king—the Targaryen dynasty had to come to an end. (I would’ve been outraged had he somehow ended up sitting on the Iron Throne.) I expected that he likely would die at the end—perhaps in retribution for having killed Daenerys—but having him rejoin the Night’s Watch was an ‘okay’ alternative. At least he finally petted poor Ghost!

Arya going off to play explorer (ach! that was supposed to be Tyrion—as I explained in my previous post) was a tad silly, perhaps, but then what else was she supposed to do? In any case, I’m glad Sansa survived and became Queen of the North. She ended up being one of my favourite characters.

The scene wherein Brienne wrote the final chapter of the life of Jaime was touching. The scene of the Small Council was entertaining. Yes, they were ‘fan services’, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that sometimes, especially in a final episode.

So, overall, I am fine with how the series ended. Seasons 7 and 8 suffered from being too short, and events certainly felt forced in places. But aside from Tyrion strangely losing much of his intelligence upon becoming the Hand of the Queen, the characters pretty much realized who they really were in their actions, and the ending made sense (for the most part) given the assumptions of the fictional world.

It certainly ended a million times better than Lost!

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).