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!

19 May 2019

The end of Game of Thrones

I clearly am not ready for Game of Thrones to end. In fact, recently I had a dream of a trailer for a spin-off series. It begins with the following voice-over: “The journeys of Tyrion Lannister did not end in Kings Landing…” This is followed by scenes of Tyrion travelling to exotic places throughout Essos (meeting kings and merchants, exploring ancient ruins, etc.). Essentially he is the Westerosi version of Marco Polo. 

[Map of Essos from here.]

For some reason, Tyrion is accompanied in his journeys by Izembaro—the character played by Richard E. Grant. (Izembaro’s theatre troupe ‘The Gate’ was based in Braavos, so perhaps they met there?)


Actually, an episodic fantasy ‘buddy’ series starring Peter Dinklage and Richard E. Grant does not sound too bad…

16 May 2019

Crypts and Things Sale

Until the end of May the products in D101 GamesCrypts & Things line are all 25% off at DrivethruRPG.

Crypts & Things is my favourite rules light(-ish) swords and sorcery FRPG. (And I’m not saying that just because some of my Swords & Wizardry house rules were integrated into it!)

If you want a D&D-ish system that captures the flavour of R.E. Howard’s ‘Conan’ and ‘Kull’ stories, or Clark Ashton Smith’s tales of ‘Zothique’ and ‘Hyperborea’, or the more ‘metal’ portions of Michael Moorcock’s ‘Elric’ saga, then C&T is for you!

Also, C&T benefits from some very creative modules! (Check out this review of Life and Death from the notoriously harsh Bryce Lynch.)

14 May 2019

The Dead Gods of the Elder Isles


A few months ago I reread (for the third time!) the Lyonesse trilogy by Jack Vance. My main motivation for doing so was to refresh my memory of the setting in anticipation of the forthcoming Mythras-based Lyonesse FRPG. (The first novel was discussed at the Tabletop Roleplayers’ Book Club blog last January.)

A passage in the final novel, Madouc, stuck with me, as it described a pantheon—the ‘Dead Gods’—that I quite liked. (I think that this pantheon would work quite well in a different fantasy setting as well, not simply the Elder Isles.)
The under-chamberlain took Madouc into the Court of the Dead Gods. “See yonder! There stands Cron the Unknowable, across from his terrible spouse Hec, the Goddess of Fate. For a game they created the difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ then, once again becoming bored, they ordained the distinction between ‘something’ and nothing.’ When these diversions palled, they opened their hands and through their fingers let trickle matter, time, space and light, and at last they had created enough to hold their interest.” 
“All very well,” said Madouc, “But where did they learn this intricate lore?” 
“Aha!” said the under-chamberlain wisely. “That is where the mystery begins! When theologians are asked the source of Cron and Hec, they pull at their beards and change the subject. It is certainly beyond my understanding. We know for a fact only that Cron and Hec are father and mother to all the rest. There you see Atlante, there Gaea; there is Fantares, there Aeris. These are the divinities of water, earth, fire and air. Apollo the Glorious is God of the Sun; Drethre the Beautiful is Goddess of the Moon. There you see Fluns, Lord of Battles; facing him is Palas, Goddess of the Harvest. Finally: Adace and Aronice stand in opposition, as well they might! For six months of each year Adace is the God of Pain, Cruelty, and Evil, while Aronice is the Goddess of Love and Kindness. At the time of the equinoxes they change roles and for the next six months, Adace is the God of Bravery, Virtue and Clemency, while Aronice is the Goddess of Spite, Hatred and Treachery. For this reason they are known as ‘The Fickle Pair’.” 
“Ordinary folk change by the hour, or even by the minute,” said Madouc. “By comparison, Adace and Aronice would seem to be steadfast. Still, I would not care to be a member of their household.” 
“That is an astute observation,” said the under-chamberlain.
[From Jack Vance, Madouc, X.2.]

I also really liked this description of the ‘Druidic’ deity ‘Lucanor’ (god of ‘Primals’):
Lucanor’s duties were three: he plotted the shape of the constellations and, when needful, altered the placement of the stars; he assigned to each thing of the world the secret name by which its existence was confirmed or denied; he regulated the cycle by which the end of the future merged into the beginning of the past. In Druidic depictions, Lucanor wore double-pointed shoes, with toes extending both forward and back. An iron circlet displaying seven golden disks clasped his head. Lucanor was a solitary god, who held himself aloof from the lesser gods of the Druidic pantheon, among whom he inspired awe and fear. 
A Druidic myth relates how Lucanor, coming upon the other gods as they sat at the banquet table, found them drinking mead in grand style, to the effect that several were drunk, while others remained inexplicably sober; could some be slyly swilling down more than their share? The disparity led to bickering and it seemed that a serious quarrel was brewing. Lucanor bade the group to serenity, stating that the controversy no doubt could be settled without recourse either to blows or to bitterness. Then and there Lucanor formulated the concept of numbers and enumeration, which heretofore had not existed. The gods henceforth could tally with precision the number of horns each had consumed and, by this novel method, assure general equity and, further, explain why some were drunk and others not. “The answer, once the new method is mastered, becomes simple!” explained Lucanor. “It is that the drunken gods have taken a greater number of horns than the sober gods, and the mystery is resolved.” For this, the invention of mathematics, Lucanor was given great honour.
[From Jack Vance, Madouc, XI.2 (footnote).]

13 May 2019

Some thoughts on 'The Bells' (Game of Thrones: S8 E5)

Some reflections on tonight’s rather epic Game of Thrones episode, ‘The Bells’…
[Needless to say, spoilers below!]


I thought that some of the key relationships were wrapped up in relatively satisfying ways (given how ‘rushed’ the final season seems overall). In particular, I was not left unsatisfied by the following relationship resolutions:

1. Tyrion-Varys.
2. Tyrion-Jaime. (I thought this scene was beautiful—surprisingly touching.)
3. Sandor-Arya. (Again, really great—a small bit of redemption for the Hound.)
4. Sandor-Gregor. (‘Cleganbowl’ was never going to be able to live up to fans’ expectations, but I thought that the fight was good fun—and it ended in a fittingly poetic way.) 

I’m a bit mixed about the Jaime-Cersei ending. I was firmly convinced last week that Jaime was heading back to King’s Landing in order to kill Cersei (and that he harshly misled Brienne about his reasons in order to sever their relationship since he expected to die in his endeavour). But given that that did not go the way that I thought it would, how they died together seemed … appropriate.

The Euron-Jaime fight was terrible. (But then Euron Greyjoy is a ridiculous character in the television series. He’s pretty much as awful as the annoying-and-unmissed ‘Sand Snakes’.) It was out of character for Euron: why wouldn’t he just grab a ship and flee once the outcome of the battle was clear? Moreover, it was pointless—it did nothing to change Jaime’s ultimate fate. Blech…

Also, while I’ve never been a fan of Daenerys Targaryen—it always seemed clear to me that she had something of the ‘mad king’ in her, and so I never regarded her as the potential ‘saviour’ of Westeros—her descent into full-blown berserker madness struck me as a bit too quick to be plausible. A bit more control in her vengeance—say, going directly to destroy the Red Keep instead of strafing every neighbourhood in King’s Landing first—would’ve made more sense. But I guess the script writers felt it necessary to really (really, really) illustrate that Daenerys is the ‘bad guy’ now.
 
On a more positive note, I loved following Arya through King’s Landing as everything was being destroyed around her. Some comments that I’ve read said that it went on too long, but I thought it was great. In fact, I can’t believe how tense I felt the whole time. And it provided a much needed ‘townsfolk’ perspective on the cruel destructiveness of Daenerys’s actions (and war in general). 

Overall, I’d rank this episode as tied with the second one (“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”) as the best of this (otherwise somewhat disappointing) season. 


09 May 2019

Tolkien biopic only 46% fresh


As I noted here a few months ago, I was kind of looking forward to the ‘Tolkien’ film that is opening this week. But according to Rotten Tomatoes, it’s only 46 percent ‘fresh’.

*sigh*

Will I still see it? Probably—but I might wait for it to hit Netflix (or wherever) first…

06 May 2019

One giant's milk latte please...

Something does not belong in this scene from last night's episode of Game of Thrones:


Disbelief: no longer suspended!

Some amusing takes on this screw-up here.

04 May 2019

May the Fourth be with you

Jedi master 'Spinoda' trains Jedi apprentice Immanuel Kant (from Existential Comics):


Check out the full Star Wars themed comic here!

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