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Four years ago, Jack Bauer disappeared from our screens and we all worked for a different company and spent less time on Facebook. Onward! It was a crackling premiere, with all the delicious logical voids and giddy action we came to love. Remember, though, that this is only 12 hours, so Jack will have to break twice as many knuckles.

As always, SPOILERS ABOUND:

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  • Split screen! We’re in the CIA’s London HQ, which looks a lot like the CTU HQ. Dark, no windows, it even has the same three restrooms: Men, Women, Moles.

  • And those restrooms are never, ever used.

  • We see Ben Bratt as Steve Navarro, CIA section chief and this season’s resident unyielding bureaucrat, plus Yvonne SheUsedToBeOnChuck as Agent Kate Morgan, and she’s already in trouble over something. Navarro is overseeing an operation in London (did they ask the UK for permission to stage an operation?) to track down a guy in a hoodie – and said guy then beats up half the CIA team! Yes, it’s Jack Bauer! Jack makes a run for it through the open market while the armed CIA agents wave their guns in pursuit. YEAAAHHH, that happens every day in London. But wait, Jack gets caught?! Jack never gets caught!

  • Dissolve to ... the “24” logo! And... “Events occur in real time.” AHHHHHHHHH....! Welcome back.

  • Back at HQ, Kate Morgan thinks there’s something fishy. Jack’s been missing for 4 years, and now he’s caught so easily. Naturally, no one believes her. She is going to be the Jack of this unit!

  • We meet President Heller (William Devane), whom you may remember as Defense Secretary Heller from Days 4-6. He’s in the UK to negotiate a deal with the Brits that would extend the U.S.’s use of a Brit base for its controversial drone warfare. He says to his staff, “In return, we must prevent the Kardarshians from ever stepping foot in Britain.”

  • Unfortunately, President Heller is starting to mix up details. Immediately, he becomes the frontrunner for new Script Editor of “24.”

  • Tate Donovan (best known as Jennifer Aniston’s pre-Brad boyfriend, which is kind of sad) plays White House Chief of Staff Mark Angryglare, who hears about Jack’s capture. He orders that no one else be told of this, not even the president, and he orders the CIA to turn Jack over to the Dick Cheney Torture & Needlepoint Division. (I don’t doubt that a Presidential Chief of Staff has that sort of clout, which is kind of scary!)

  • Why does Mark hate Jack so much? Because he’s married to ex-Coma Girl Audrey! Boy, Audrey knows how to pick ‘em: First she was married to Paul Raines, who was nipple-shock-tortured by Jack, then she was with Jack himself (which is downright disturbing, when you think about it), and now this guy?

  • A short time later, Mark speaks to Head Lackey: “What if Bauer were to ... disappear?” Lackey: “You mean magic? Like David Blaine?” Mark: “No, I mean what if we MADE him ‘disappear’?” Lackey: “OHHHH, I get it. We do the magic, not Bauer.” Mark: “No, Lackey! I mean ... dis-KILLKILLKILL-appear.” Lackey: “Ah, okay. Hey, isn’t that illegal?” Mark: “I lost Jennifer to Brad. I won't lose Audrey to Jack!”

  • Back at CIA No-Windows HQ, Steve Navarro tries to interrogate Jack, but he just stares ahead, thinking about the two brief seasons of “Touch.” He doesn’t even twitch when Steve tells him that his daughter, Kim, has had another kid! Here’s a photo. I’m suspicious.

  • Over at the Dick Cheney Torture & Needlepoint Division, which is somehow in the basement of the basement-level CIA HQ, we see ... Chloe! And she’s being tortured?! Wow, all her sexual fantasies with Jack are coming true in the worst way possible!

  • P.S. Chloe is now an information hacker who was once locked up for helping Jack escape surveillance in the series finale. She’s also gone goth. She looks like the Winter Soldier, but she doesn’t have the metal arm. Or DOES she?

  • Kate is convinced that Jack wanted to be captured, but still no one believes her. One team member, Eric, is a major whiner and crybaby, and her boss Steve thinks – EXPOSITION! – she’s just acting out because her husband spied on them all for the Chinese and she didn’t know about it. Frustrated, Steve takes her ID card and secret decoder ring.

  • By the way, when do you think Kate’s husband will pop up? You KNOW it’s coming. I say Episode 7 (the 4 p.m. hour).

  • Change of scenery: Lowly lieutenant piloting a drone over Afghanistan and getting picked on by his commander. Nothing to see here, right?

  • One of the challenges of each season of “24” has been “What variation of the Jack Bauer Sleeper Hold will we see this year?” And we get our answer as Jack takes out the CIA guys transporting him to the torture room: Sleeper Hold – while handcuffed! Well done, Jack.

  • Jack yells at the guy who’s been torturing Chloe, but the guy cracks back, “Nothing you haven’t done! And hey, can you autograph my Jack Bauer Torture Trading Cards? I’m a big fan!”

  • Kate, while being escorted out of the building, tasers her guard, grabs his gun and ID card, and drags him into a closet! Just like Jack! She then gets her tech pal, Jordan, to be her Chloe and send unauthorized info to her. Wow, she IS the She-Jack!

  • Jack gets Chloe out of CIA HQ, thanks to Convenient Serbian Dude on the outside who blows a hole in the pavement with a bazooka. Kate, pursuing, is upset: “CIA HQ! No sunlight allowed!”

  • Jack releases Chloe so they can temporarily split up. Ah, but Jack is secretly tracking her. Convenient Serbian Dude: “I thought she was your friend.” Jack has a sad face. “I don’t have any friends.” Cue the Furious Blinking! Oh, Furious Blinking, how I’ve missed you...

  • You know what’s cool about Kate? Unlike some of the female leads on “24” over the years (Audrey, Renee), she doesn’t seem to have major emotional or psychological baggage. Which is nice! It won’t last, but it’s nice!

  • Remember that drone we saw in Afghanistan? It goes rogue! It fires a missile at the US/UK convoy! Who’s behind it? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos chuckles evilly and ... oh, sorry. That’s MY version. Here, hacker dude Derek Yeates sits back from his console, satisfied at the destruction. Major Threat #1 is underway – probably to be replaced by Major Threat #2 in six hours.

  • The great Stephen Fry pops up as the British Prime Minister. President Heller receives the info about the “friendly fire” drone attack – which killed four, including two Brits – but before he can inform his counterpart, the PM gets dire news from his own troops: The Kardashians have landed at Heathrow.

  • Chloe hooks up with her team of hackers, led by a Julian Assange-wannabe named Adrian Cross. If he looks familiar to you, that’s because he’s played by Michael Wincott, who was the top evil henchman in EVERY SINGLE ‘90s ACTION FILM. Jack and Convenient Serbian Dude did indeed follow Chloe, and Jack demands the location of Derek Yeates, who used to be in Adrian’s hacker group but got kicked out for inviting too many people to play Farmville. Chloe agrees to help Jack, but she’s pissed. “You’re my friend, Jack. You could have just asked.” Zing! What’s that about having “no friends,” Jack? More blinking!

  • Jack does an exposition dump, telling us he’s heard that Yeates is targeting President Heller and he wants to stop it. Chloe scoffs, “Why, Jack? Do you think you’ll be welcomed back? It’s because of Audrey, isn’t it? My little Jacky-Poo wants to hug that skinny tramp while his Chloe Bunny is RIGHT HERE.” “What did you say, Chloe?” “I said, I ate some wacky food that’s giving me stomach cramps but there’s some Pepto-Bismol RIGHT HERE.” “Oh.”

  • We get a better look at hacker Yeates, who is safely holed up in the not-so-strong stronghold of a drug dealer, alongside Yeates’ Russian gal pal who just wants to do the Sexy Time while Yeates negotiates payment with the mysterious woman Margot who wants to buy his drone hacker.

  • Soon, Jack gets that location and he’s off – and Chloe wants to come along and provide surveillance support. Jack doesn’t deserve you, Chloe! Jack then ditches Convenient Serbian Dude like sloppy seconds.

  • Meanwhile, Kate the She-Jack uses Bauerian logic-stretching science to determine the location of Jack and Chloe. CIA squads also head over to the not-so-strong stronghold.

  • Jack, being Jack, gets past the guards and right into the main room of Drug Dealing Guy. Four guys face off against Jack! Best scene of the night: Jack tells them to hand over Yeates and they might walk out of this alive. The drug guys scoffs. Jack calmly says, “Look I can tell you consider yourself a pretty intimidating group. You probably think I’m at a disadvantage. I promise you I’m not.” Fight! Jack kicks ass! Yeates and Russian gal pal head out the back window – with the drone tech! Jack grabs a thumb drive from what’s left of Yeates’ system.

  • And THEN Kate and the CIA team show up! Doofus Eric holds up a photo of Jack to the fleeing Yeates and Russian gal pal. Yeates says, “Yeah, he’s up there! He’s crazy!” And off Yeates goes, right past the unquestioning CIA team!

  • Jack has to run and hide in the building’s darkened parking level. He then grabs Kate and pleads with her to listen to him and go after Yeates. Kate tries to break free and attack. Jack growls, “That was a mistake.” Head butt!! YES! He gets out of the building and is picked up by Chloe, who hot-wired a car. Jack seems impressed, which I don’t understand since we’ve known not to underestimate her ever since this – one of “24’s” top 10 moments.

  • Meanwhile, Yeates thinks he’s been sold out by Mystery Margot, so he tells Russian gal pal that he’ll find another buyer ... at which point, Russian gal pal stabs him in the ear with a stiletto! OWWWW! Yep, she’s working with Mystery Margot. In fact, as she drops the wig and the fake accent, we learn that she’s Mystery Margot’s daughter!

  • And hey, about that wig? So it never came off before? Did she and Yeates NOT have sex? Take showers? Play Strip Twister? Well, he was British....

  • Once Chloe starts looking at the thumb drive’s schematics of Yeates’ drone hacker, the files begin to disintegrate! There’s one of those darn self-destruct virus thingies built into it! Jack yells: “Chloe, save it!” “I can’t! All I could save was a piece of a schematic and Yeates’ invitation to play Bejeweled Blitz.” Jack: “DAMMIT!”



Posted via m.livejournal.com.

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We continue recapping Rick Maffei’s 4e D&D campaign, set in the world of Áereth (from Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics). We are currently in the anything-goes land of Punjar, an island kingdom that is a dangerous, exciting mix of Casablanca and Calcutta. Our quest for more information about the pirate captain Longshanks and the mysterious metallic triangles is forcing us to help a noble family track down a missing person, a troublesome party-loving gal whom they were charged with protecting.

Here, once more, is the party lineup:

  • Mike: Tarthon, minotaur barbarian – Likes His Enemies Split in Two, Like His Pies (note: Mike couldn't make it to the first of the two sessions described below, so Rick's friend Mark pitched in to help)

  • Steve: Grumhorn, a.k.a. "Grue," dwarf invoker – He Who Glows Brightly and Sinks Quickly

  • Me: Graaver Stormcry, longtooth shifter druid-fighter – Fierce Combatant Who Can Scratch and Lick Places Not to be Mentioned in Polite Company

  • Willie: Sebastin, githzerai ranger – Taught Legolas Everything He Knows (note: missing from both sessions, unfortunately)

  • Felix: new character finally debuting this very game!



Part 1: What an Incredible Smell We Discover
Kandis arranges a private meeting with the Malhavens and escorts Stormcry, Grue, and Tarthon to the manor house. Along with the Malhavens, we meet a scowling young half-orc in scale armor named Kerrun. (The “u” is silent. Mostly. Hi, Felix!) After we grunt and mark our territory, we get down to the business of finding the missing gal, Lindsay Lohan... uh, Ardwen Toladae.

First, the Malhavens want to be sure we’re discrete. Of course, we’re discrete! These days, we leave only a few bodies in our wake, and we haven’t burned down a building in weeks! We’re given two leads: 1) Around the time of Ardwen’s disappearance, a retainer who had been keeping an eye on her dropped dead at the feet of a young trinket seller, a.k.a. “street scum” in the Malhavens’ eyes. 2) A specter or ghost has been seen in the area – we’re told we should talk to a fishmonger named Crudleman. The name alone sounds like fish bait. (“Hey, how’d you catch that bass?” “Easy – I put some crudleman on the hook!”)

We get all Sherlocky and ask about possible motivations, just in case the culprits’ main goal was to embarrass the Malhavens. The Malhavens own one of the biggest casinos around: the House of Fate. (If the blackjack dealer is named Manos, I’m leaving.) They have two big rivals: the Happarannon family, which owns the House of Luck, and the Rohamarie family, which operates the House of Fortuity.

The party later heads out for a breakfast of yogurt and falafel (doesn’t any family operate the House of Pancakes?) with new ally Kerrun, who gets the recaps of past sessions downloaded to his iPad. We then seek fishmonger Crudleman, who’ll tell us about the ghost IF we bring back the wolf’s-head belt buckle of the leader of the Crimson Dogs, a gang of thugs who have been harassing him. Okay, so to get the runes transcribed, we have to help the Malhavens. To help the Malhavens, we have to get info from a fishmonger. To get info from the fishmonger, we have to beat up a Punjar street gang. Got it. Could be worse! Stormcry buys 6 big fish – longjaws – from the guy, along with a sack of ice. Why? Why not? He might get peckish.

Crudleman does tell us where to find the street kid, so we seek out Oliver Twist who is selling daggers. Kerrun decides to haggle over prices. There’s some give-and-take via a skill challenge – the kid is a sharp seller! Kerrun buys a pendant with a raven on it – the kid says it’s a “lucky charm.” Yeah, right. So’s this rock on the street.

After more chatting, the kid tells us that the dying man mumbled something about “green creatures” and “slaughter.” After the nightmare experience in the Sargasso, this group isn’t exactly keen on green. Oliver Twist indicates that the dying man stepped out of a nearby alleyway.

Investigating the area, we see that an old sign – probably indicating the street’s name – was crossed out. Scratched in its stead are the words “Slaughterstone Alley.” A quiet street, then? At the corner, we spot an old, seemingly decrepit man sitting on the street with a bowl for donation – and a monkey. Two other guys sit slumped against the wall farther down the street, apparently drunk. Stormcry looks more closely – the “drunk” guys are faking it. He calmly walks up to one, abruptly grabs him by the throat and growls, “Tell me who you’re watchdogs for!!” Fight!

Proceed to blood, mystery, and massive stinkiness!Collapse )
Saturday, November 23, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. Fittingly, there have been celebrations, specials, personal appearances, and a Loch Ness Monster-sized number of specials across the BBC's space-time continuum -- all culminating in the anniversary episode itself, "The Day of the Doctor," which is being broadcast worldwide -- simultaneously. (That's Saturday 2:50 p.m. for we U.S. East Coasters.)

Across five decades and 11 Doctors (or maybe 12 or 13, actually -- damn you, Steven Moffat!), there have been many great moments: some sad, some frightening, and nearly all surprising. And what's surprising to me is how many Dalek moments made the cut! Though not my favorite Who enemies, they unquestioningly have proven their value to the series.

Here, in chronological order, are 20 classic Who moments:

  1. Barbara steps into the TARDIS (An Unearthly Child, November 1963). In that first episode of that first story, schoolteachers Barbara and Ian investigate the mystery of their student Susan. After an argument with Susan's mysterious grandfather in a junkyard, Barbara pushes her way into the tiny British police call ball and ... discovers that it's bigger on the inside. MUCH bigger. We're jaded now, but for the early '60s audience, this was wild stuff.


  2. The Doctor and Barbara argue over the fate of the Aztecs (The Aztecs, May 1964). I miss the series' purely occasional forays into the purely historical dramas, because of moments like this. After the TARDIS lands in ancient Aztec times, Barbara is mistaken for the avatar of the sun god. She decides to use that leverage to turn the Aztecs away from their bloody religious rituals and make them a strong, enduring, progressive force in history. The Doctor is horrified. "You CAN'T!" he angrily pleads. He tries to make her understand that history cannot be altered like this without devastating consequences. Wonderful acting by both William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill.


  3. The Dalek emerges from the Thames (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, November 1964). The first time we saw the Daleks a year earlier, they were on a far-off world, oppressing their historical foes, the Thaals. Here, the TARDIS lands in 22nd century London to find it devastated and policed by ruthless, cybernetic "Robomen." At the end of the first episode, they see a Dalek rolling imperiously out of the Thames River. The Daleks are on Earth, and they've already won.


  4. The first regeneration (The Tenth Planet, October 1966). After three years as the Doctor, William Hartnell wanted to exit. His health was on the decline, as is clearly visible in these episodes. The BBC wanted the series to continue. But Hartnell was the star! The solution: Have this mysterious alien change his form upon his "death," metamorphosing into an altogether different person. (It wouldn't be called regeneration for another few years.) This resolution was simple, innovative, and largely responsible for the series' existence today.


  5. The Cybermen rise from their tomb (Tomb of the Cybermen, September 1967). A creepy moment from a classic tale. Doctor Who loved to borrow concepts from old horror movies, and this is straight out of Universal's Mummy films. The slow-motion movements of the waking Cybermen combine with the eerieness of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to create magic. (Here's a fan-made trailer for the story.)


  6. Killer mannequins on the loose (Spearhead from Space, January 1970). In the Third Doctor's first story, filmed in color for the first time -- and on film, no less -- the evil, plastic-inhabiting Autons put their master plan into effect: Mannequins with blaster hands went on the warpath. Hmmm, OK, as invasion plans go, the Autons' idea had some holes in it, but the story succeeded in taking an everyday image and making it scary.


  7. The departure of Jo Grant (The Green Death, June 1973). When Jo Grant became the Third Doctor's companion, she was, well, pretty useless. By the time she left, she was a competent foil for the Doctor and a loyal friend. Producer/Director Barry Letts gave her a worthy sendoff, massaging the moment for plenty of emotion, and closing with a splendid shot of the saddened Doctor driving across the sunset.


  8. “Have I the right?” (Genesis of the Daleks, April 1975). Doctor Who usually hasn't shied away from exploring the grayer areas of morality. In this classic tale, most of the characters aren't heroes and villains as much as they are people arguing over principles. The Doctor, at the birth of his archenemies, has a golden opportunity to destroy a Dalek nursery and ensure that the Daleks never threaten the galaxy. But he can't bring himself to connect those two wires and commit genocide. It's Tom Baker at his best.


  9. “Then what’s it FOR?!!” (The Pirate Planet, October 1978). Douglas Adams' time as series script editor certainly had its ups and down, but he struck gold a year earlier with his tale of a planet-sized ship that teleported itself around other planets, which it then crushed to steal their resources... and, of course, killing billions in the process. When the Doctor confronts the madman controlling the ravaging ship -- the arrogant, delusional Captain -- the Time Lord drops his eccentric demeanor and completely loses his shit, displaying rage in a way never seen to that point.


  10. The death of Adric (Earthshock, March 1982). The Doctor's companion dies while trying to stop a ship from crashing into Earth. The Doctor and his other companions, having just regained control of the TARDIS from the Cybermen, can only watch in horror. The credits rolled in silence.


  11. Crashing into Androzani Minor (The Caves of Androzani, March 1984). Both Doctor Who Magazine and io9.com call this story -- Peter Davison' finale -- the greatest in the show's history. No argument here. The Doctor is dying from the opening minutes, and each episode packs on more twists, more tension, and several great cliffhangers, including this moment at the end of the penultimate Episode 3. The Doctor, somewhat delirious and guilt-ridden, seizes control of the mercenaries' starship and steers it back to Androzani Minor in order to find and save his companion Peri, who is also dying. With automatic weapons about to fire at him, the Doctor refuses to yield.


  12. The Daleks can go up stairs! (Remembrance of the Daleks, October 1988). The Daleks hadn't fared so well in their previous couple of appearances in the series, but they make a better showing here against Sylvester McCoy's Machiavellian Doctor. As the Doctor and Ace flee up the stairs, the episode ends with the pursuing Dalek levitating after them.


  13. “Nice to meet you, Rose -- run for your life!” (Rose, March 2005). After a decade's absence from the TV screens, the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) had returned. An engrossing start to the series' revival.


  14. “I watched it happen! I MADE it happen!!” (Dalek, April 2005). Christopher Eccleston's Doctor says he's the last of the Time Lords. Once he discovers to his horror that there's still a Dalek alive after the Time War, we learn that the Doctor did what he couldn't do way back in Genesis of the Daleks: Kill all the Daleks. Finding a lone Dalek releases all of the Doctor's pent-up rage and self-loathing. Through his one season as the Doctor, Eccleston projected the image of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress, which leads us to...


  15. “Everybody lives!” (The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, May 2005). In a creepy two-part story set in 1940s Britain, the Doctor is determined to end the death that constantly follows in his wake. He's a man who's desperate to find a happy ending ... and he does. "Just this once, Rose... everybody lives!!" (Thinking about these scenes again makes me newly sad that Eccleston called it quits after just one year.)


  16. Daleks vs. Cybermen (Doomsday, July 2006). At long last, two of the Doctor's iconic villains meet face-to-eyestalk. The results -- and the smackdown dialogue -- do not disappoint. "Daleks, be warned - you have declared war upon the Cybermen." "This-Is-Not-WAR. This-Is-PEST-CONTROL!!"


  17. The Doctor is shot by a Dalek and starts to regenerate! (cliffhanger for The Stolen Earth, June 2008). Exactly that! Rose Tyler returns from another universe and is finally about to be reunited with David Tennant's Tenth Doctor when -- ZAP! -- a Dalek gets him spot-on with its death ray. And here comes the tell-tale regeneration glow! But... but... Tennant isn't leaving the series -- how can this be resolved? The answer in the next episode was Russell T. Davies at his looniest. Yet it worked.


  18. The Doctor breaks the rules (Waters of Mars, November 2009). Just as Dalek flipped the moral argument of Genesis of the Daleks, Waters of Mars echoes back to The Aztecs. The Doctor finds that he cannot just walk away from the doomed members of the first human base on Mars, despite what history says. With righteous fury, he decides to make his own decisions about who lives and who dies, history and the Weave of Time be damned. For a few minutes, the Doctor becomes more frightening than any of his enemies. And that doesn't matter to him one bit.


  19. Oswin Oswald (Asylum of the Daleks, September 2012). Doctor Who fans had known for some time that Jenna-Louise Coleman would become the new companion for Matt Smith's Doctor in the Christmas special that year, once Amy and Rory were gone. So, Whovians around the globe were shocked to watch the start of the new series' seventh season and see... Jenna-Louise Coleman?! Acting all companion-like?! But how...? She's not starting for months! How did showrunner Steven Moffat keep this a secret, and how... what, now she's DEAD?! But how... MOFFAT!! Overall, just a brilliant bit of misdirection by Moffatt, and even though he dropped the ball on resolving the mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald several times during the season, there's no doubt that he stuck the landing in the season finale, The Name of the Doctor.


  20. "I'm a Doctor... but probably not the one you expected." (The Night of the Doctor, November 2013). This prequel to the 50th anniversary episode appeared only a week ago, yet it very much deserves a spot on this list. In another surprise that's stunning for its secrecy, Paul McGann appears onscreen as the Eighth Doctor for the first time since the 1996 TV movie -- and he is magnificent. In less than 7 minutes, McGann leaves a legion of old and new viewers wondering about what could have been. And Moffat's script gives fans everything we needed, including a few items we didn't even realize we needed.


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Metatopia reactions

Last Saturday, I attended Metatopia, a unique game convention that’s designed by game designers FOR game designers. First off... brilliant concept. It’s like letting hobbits design their own bar. Metatopia is run by Double Exposure, a New Jersey-based organization that has produced DexCon and other gaming conventions in the Garden State for, well, forever.

I’m not sure how I never came across Metatopia before. It’s in Morristown, for Odin’s sake, which is a 45-minute drive from my suburban keep. Maybe it’s because I didn’t hang around enough game designers in the past. Maybe it’s because of the blinding headaches I get when the web guru in me sees Double Exposure’s website, which desperately needs to be liberated from its 1997 UI. But I digress.

Metatopia 2013 was such a fun time that I soon regretted not being able to spend more than one day there this year. It’s cozy and collegial, the Hyatt Morristown has a good bar, and Dunkin' Donuts is 3 blocks away. Win.

There’s no flashy exhibit hall and no dealer’s area aside from a handful of tables and book crates – nope, Metatopia is the place for game designers to test out their new products and concepts, and for eager playtesters to happily push those new concepts to their limits and beyond.

It’s also a place for panels and seminars on game creation, ranging from design to dealing with freelancers to marketing. I’ve done a lot of RPG editing – with more to come – so I checked out the seminar “What Goes Into Your GM Advice Chapter,” hosted by Kevin Kulp, Amanda Valentine, Ryan Macklin, and Brennan Taylor. Many notes were taken! Some of the advice was common sense, but no less valuable for being so. Three key tips from that seminar:

  1. Focus on the positive, fun aspects of the game. If your game doesn’t sound like fun to the prospective GM, why the hell should he run it? The important corollary: DON’T BE NEGATIVE, especially about other game systems.

  2. Make it clear that the information in this chapter is for your game. Sure, there will be general GM advice, but you need to focus on the specific ins and out of your system.

  3. Understand that players will fail at some point, so describe ways that the GM of your game can turn that failure into something interesting.

Highlights of the day:

  • Hanging out in the aforementioned bar playing a cool new pub card game from Cheapass Games, Pairs, with Kevin Kulp, Tracy Barnett, my old Staten Island pal Paul Gerardi (formerly of Z-Man Games and now proprietor of the brick-and-mortar Myriad Games), and other fine folks. And the game design talk kept on going throughout! It was very satisfying to be in the middle of creative discussions like that. Also, beer.

  • Playtesting alternative rules for transition scenes in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game. Transition scenes in the Marvel RPG are often skipped through quickly, and the amazing Krista White developed a way to bring specific emotional states into those scenes as a means of fostering roleplaying and even developing Milestones. (FYI: I really enjoyed playing Spider-Woman and whacking a decidedly retro-thinking Captain America with emotional stress.) Bonus: Also rolling dice in the playtest were two of the folks who wrote the excellent Marvel RPG – Cam Banks and Philippe Ménard!

At the end of the session, I yielded to my inner fanboy and ask Cam to sign my Premium edition of the Civil War book. It is now a d12 asset.

Until next year, Metatopia.

Survivor-Caramoan-Fans-vs.-Favorites-Episode-8-2013-02After a so-so first half, the current season of Survivor ("Survivor: Caramoan") seemed like nothing to eat a writhing grubworm over. The inexplicable laziness of Shamar was annoying, and the meltdown of Brandon Hantz - while Train-Wreck TV - was so uncomfortable to watch that you couldn't help but question the producers' motives for bringing him back and your own motives for watching. Could we PLEASE get some actual gameplay?

Then came the Merge, and with it perhaps the best three-episode run in 13 years, certainly since the stretch of "Heroes vs. Villains" when Russell convinced Tyson to vote himself off. Thank you, Survivor Gods.

It started innocently enough when returning player Malcolm (who combines the physical skill of Ozzie, the savvy mind of Yul, and the life approach of a D&D warlock) confers with ally and delicious quote machine Corinne. They decide to betray their Favorites teammates and forge a new alliance with the remaining Fans. It should have worked. The Phillip-"led" Favorites had no inkling... until Corinne tried to bring super-crier Dawn into the fold.

In a treat to Survivor fans, Dawn tells us that she remembers what happened the LAST time she heard about a betrayal and did nothing: Cochran's epic flip (which I still support). This time, though, Dawn rises! And Corinne, who gleefully said that she had never been part of a blindside, gets her wish, Monkey's Paw-style. Bonus: Lovable nerd Cochran beats Malcolm in a thrilling photo finish of a classic Immunity Challenge - the eating of the gross local cuisine. Mmm, chicken embryos. Om nom.

It continued the following week with Malcolm's alliance definitely on the outs, Dawn & Cochran engaging in great strategizing, another terrific Immunity Challenge (combining endurance and willpower), and Andrea getting bizarrely paranoid. But hey, as that episode showed, sometimes they really ARE out to get you! The best part of that hour came at the end, when Malcolm - convinced (by Phillip?!?) that his fellow Favorites are out to get him - uses a Jedi mind-trick to persuade pal and other endangered player Reynold to surrender his hidden Immunity Idol to Malcolm! Kicker: Malcolm already HAD a hidden Immunity Idol that nobody else knew about! Brilliant!

(Another reason to like Malcolm: He doesn't succumb to the insane temptation to blab to everyone, "Look at me! I got the secret Immunity Idol!" As Gandalf told Frodo, "Keep it secret. Keep it safe.")

As it turned out, Malcolm didn't need it, but the end result is that Malcolm's hidden idol remained exactly that - hidden - and now everyone on the island was convinced that Malcolm couldn't possibly have an idol since he had to ask for Reynold's. Fabulous.

It perfectly sets the stage for this past week's episode. Malcolm, Reynold, and low-wattage Eddie know their backs will be up against the wall every vote until either they're gone or they find some cracks in Phillip's anti-stealth Stealth-R-Us alliance, which is already planning to split the next vote between Malcolm and Reynold. (To their credit, nobody aside from Phillip regards Phillip as the leader; they're content to let him run his mouth and be disliked by all potential Jury members.)

Let's jump right to the Immunity Challenge: a grueling water challenge requiring lots of upper body strength and the ability to hold your breath well. Phillip, shockingly, announces that he is NOT going to compete for Immunity! He tells Jeff that a childhood incident left him very afraid of drowning, so he's not going to do this.

OK, I can relate. I, too, have a deep phobia about drowning. A major accomplishment for me years ago was when I first tried (and loved) snorkeling. I understand where Phillip is coming from. BUT THIS IS SURVIVOR. If I were ever to be a contestant, I damn well would compete in every single challenge, even those where I knew I might come in last. Fuck the fear. Else why go on Survivor at all? So for Phillip to pass on this was a) incredibly dumb, b) evidence that - self-deluded as he was - he clearly felt safe, or c) both. Ultimately, Reynold wins the challenge, so the majority alliance figures no big deal, we'll split the vote between Malcolm and Eddie instead!

Malcolm doesn't rest. He's gambling that there's another Immunity Idol hidden somewhere on the beach, so the Three Muy Macho Amigos start searching. The possibility that "Hey, maybe we should find the idol before those three guys" apparently occurs to no one on the Stealthy alliance other than Dawn and Brenda; they start looking, too. Right before the ladies' stunned, shocked eyes, though, Malcolm finds the other idol! The look on Dawn's face said it all: Crap. Still, they figure they'll split the vote as planned, just in case Malcolm gives the idol to Not-So-Fast Eddie.

At Tribal Council, before the voting even starts, Malcolm displays his newly found idol... and then reveals his original one, which he gives to Eddie! All three guys are potentially safe. Wow. Sure, Malcolm could've waited until after the votes were cast to make his move. But what places his action in the top tier of Survivor moves is what comes next. He announces that all three men are voting for Phillip. This kicks off something unprecedented in Survivor: The tribe members begin openly whispering and changing their votes on the fly. Right there! Cochran smiles the smile of a fanboy, even though his side is on the receiving end of this shocker, and I'm smiling right with him. It's stupendous. Beautiful. Phillip's name is whispered, and so is Andrea's. Who would be voted off? Would Malcolm and Eddie actually play their idols? Will I ever recover from the fact that it was Clueless Erik who actually pointed out that not playing the idols was an option?

In the end, everyone votes as originally stated, which means the majority alliance's votes are for naught and Stupor Secret Agent Phillip - the man who refused to compete earlier that day - is eliminated with just three votes.

Karma, you are a magnificent bastard.

And with Phillip goes Stealth-R-Us (huzzah!), which also means that alliances may be up for grabs from here on out. Fabulous. What did you think, fellow Survivor buffs?

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Two years ago, I answered the question, “Are we the last generation of tabletop RPG gamers?” with a solid No – at least not unless future generations become Cybermen and lose the great power of imagination. Granted, it may seem challenging to pitch pen-and-paper RPGs to kids in an age of easy-to-use video and console games, not to mention iPad and Kindles. However, if there’s one thing I’ve confirmed after five years of parenting is that kids REALLY want to stretch their imaginations. (I’ve also confirmed that they think farting is hysterical and mushrooms taste yucky, but I digress.)

My daughter Jordana (now 6) and I have pulled out my D&D minis, maps, and Castle Ravenloft tiles many times during the past three years, often at her request. Over time, our pseudo-D&D playsessions have evolved from lining up the minis for a dance contest to skirmishes with giant spiders to – last year – creating an entire town on GameMastery maps and Dungeon Tiles. "This is the house, this is the diner, and THIS is the hot lava area." She chose specific minis to represent the town’s mayor, innkeeper, rabbi, fighting instructor, and other residents. It was pretty damn cool to watch, both as a gamer and as her dad.

Right around that time, the always-awesome Geek’s Dream Girl site posted “D&D The Next Generation – GGG Gives Tips for Gaming with Kids.” The blog post is worth reading. In a nutshell, the advice is to keep the DM strokes broad, use humor often, and keep in mind that many kid gamers – just like adult ones – have specific gaming preferences that you need to respect. This post, combined with my own experiences, convinced me that the time was right to run Jordana through an actual game.

Gaming with My Kid #1: rpgKids – the saga of a girl, her brother, and their steel snake
The ideal starting place was the rpgKids game by Enrique Bertran, a.k.a. “NewbieDM.”  It’s a clever, rules-light, kid-friendly fantasy RPG. The rules are simple, with four classes that correlate to the classic D&D foursome, a few basic skills, and a grid for combat, which is resolved via contested rolls using just several dice. Damage is also handled simply:  strike a foe once = injured; hit ‘em a second time = down, though the Big Bad might require 3 hits to defeat.

Jordana assembled the party from her town: the sorceress Ayla (wizard), her swashbuckling brother Zeph (archer), and their "pet" steel serpent, Kobri (fighter). Jordana determined that Kobri wears a magical collar that allows him to speak. Together, the siblings and the snake entered “The Lair of the Frog Wizard,” the introductory adventure in the rpgKids download. Can they stop the evil wizard who is turning townspeople into frogs? Do we know why he’s doing this? Naaaah! Doesn’t matter.

The session went extremely well! Jordana loved rolling the dice and – just like a grown-up gamer – got frustrated when her attacks missed, anxious when one of her PCs got hit, and super-excited when she successfully killed a monster. She even quickly grasped the concept of terrain, occasionally placing a PC behind a tree or rock for cover. The only time she seemed unsure of the whole thing was when several ghosts appeared. She was a bit scared of them at first, but once combat began, gamer’s adrenaline took over. :-)

As a DM, I had to be ready to make on-the-fly changes to accommodate the plot, the pace, and my player (e.g., changing the size of an encounter), just as I would if I were running a game for adults. If you have a kid aged 4 or older, rpgKids is a great way to introduce the excitement and fun of RPGs.  It’s available for a ridiculously low $2.99 at DriveThruRPG.

Gaming with My Kid #2: Marvel Heroic RPG – Assault on Avengers Mansion!
I’ve gotten really into Margaret Weis Productions’ Marvel Heroic Roleplaying over the past few months. Next week's post will have a lot more to say about it; for now, suffice it to say that, if run properly, the Marvel Heroic RPG does the best job I’ve seen of replicating the flow of battle, the soap-opera subplots, and the fun of classic Marvel comics.

After digesting the rules and listening to a few podcasts (mostly The Walking Eye’s actual-play sessions and Damage Control), I finally ran a session for my group earlier this month. Jordana, upon hearing of this the next day, said, “I want to play the Marvel game, too!” (Being my daughter, she is of course well acquainted with Marvel superheroes.) “Sure!” I said. Granted, I needed to do a little revising first. While the Marvel Heroic RPG is fairly easy to play once you grasp the key concepts of dice pools and Distinctions, it’s a bit much for a typical 6-year-old who is just looking for an hour or so of fun.

So here’s how I tweaked the rules for a kid-friendly, Marvel RPG-Lite session:

  • Reduced each hero’s datafile to 4 stats (3 powers + 1 specialty), three of which can be used toward the dice pool

  • Kept the concept of adding the top 2 dice, but dropped the effect die, so that combat resolution was a straightforward opposed roll; it was still possible to gain an extraordinary success

  • Flattened the three types of stress to just plain ol’ Stress (1st hit = d8 stress, 2nd hit = d10 stress, 3rd hit = stressed out), and the stress die could still be added to another character’s dice pool against the injured person

  • Turned a roll of 1 by me into an automatic extra die for the next roll by one of Jordana’s heroes, and vice versa (kind of a use-it-or-lose-it Plot Point)

Jordana chose as her heroes Iron Man, the Black Widow, and the Scarlet Witch. She also gave the Scarlet Witch an animal companion, Owl the Owl. (Holy Familiar, Batman!) Naturally, Owl the Owl needed his own datafile and powers, hence we agreed on See-Through Vision, Hearing, Flight, and a Gem of Protection. (See the photo. It's fairly easy to tell which of us wrote what!)

As our story begins, the three heroes (and their owl) are content to relax in Avengers Mansion, and the Black Widow is on monitor duty. Suddenly, there’s a pounding on the wall. It’s getting louder and LOUDER... The Black Widow quickly alerts the other heroes. Then - SMASH! The wall crumbles, and two massive robots stride forward! Clearly, determines Jordana, they’re after the Infinity Gems hidden in the mansion! (Thank you, Super Hero Squad Show.)

Black Widow strikes first, successfully damaging one of the robots. Jordana picks Owl the Owl to go next, saying, “She’s going to use her See-Through Vision to look into the robots and tell Iron Man where the weak spots are.”

I think, “Holy crap, she just created an Asset.” I hadn’t even considered using the game’s Assets or Resources for this version, but hey, there ya go!

Jordana rolls for the Owl and – bing! – Asset created! Shellhead’s resulting attack is a big success, and his repulsors finish off the first robot and damage the second. The Scarlet Witch is unable to destroy that last attacker, though, which gives the robot enough time to locate and rip open the vault containing the Infinity Gems! It collects them, but Iron Man blasts it before it can leave. All done, right? Unfortunately, at that moment, the robots’ master steps through the gaping hole in the wall.... Ultron. (For Ultron, the core dice pool consisted of 5 dice, not 3, and two of those were d12s. Hey, it’s friggin’ Ultron!)

20130827_173650Jordana isn’t thrilled to see him! In typical 6-year-old fashion, she wants to have her three heroes just smash Ultron and be done with it, 1-2-3, but I remind her that Ultron is TOUGH. The Black Widow again attacks first, ineffectually this time, and Ultron promptly throws her through the broken wall, stressing her out (Marvel RPG-speak for K.O.'d). Iron Man lasts a little longer, but he too joins Natasha in the dumpster behind Avengers Mansion. It’s down to just the Scarlet Witch... and Owl the Owl.

Jordana announces that Owl also has a “shriek” power. “OK,” I say. Why not? After all, it IS a super-owl.  She adds Shriek to Owl’s datafile and rolls. Hey, not bad... a total of 16 on the Shriek attack. Now for Ultron’s reaction roll to counter it, which shouldn’t be a problem as he’s rolling 5 dice, including those two d12s, right?

The result of Ultron’s reaction roll: 2, 4 ... and three 1’s. Wow. Owl the Owl’s cosmic hoot cuts through Ultron’s systems like adamantium claws through butter! Normally, that would be enough to end the battle, but Jordana is having too good of a time! We continue, with the once-mighty Ultron staggering through the mansion, trying to repair his body and now spotting the fallen Infinity Gems in the wreckage of his robot minion.

The Scarlet Witch will have none of that! She casts a probability hex, opening up a mini-dimensional void next to Ultron. It sucks the metallic menace into it, along with (determined randomly) one of the Infinity Gems! Ultron is gone from this reality. But where? And will he come back, more powerful than ever? Those answers must wait until our next issue, True Believers!

As you might guess, Jordana and I had a great time doing this. So don’t let anyone try to convince you that the age of tabletop gaming is dead. As long as we continue to help kids find ways to wield their exhilarating, boundless, trope-free imaginations, there will be room for games that allow kids to shape worlds.

The new season of Survivor starts tonight! Survivor: Caramoan is the second time they've done "Fans vs. Favorites," and while many fans are tired of seeing returnees, it's safe to say: a) having no three-time contestants is a good thing, and b) to date, most of the returning players have added a lot of intrigue and entertainment. So we're good.

Will Brandon Hantz again be Caramoan-ing about a beautiful woman being a vile temptress? Will Philip Sheppard, "the Specialist," show off his baggy boxer briefs while promoting his new spy novel? (Yes, really!) Will last-season fave Malcolm receive the "stranger danger" tag from the other returnees and get voted off? Will new player and BMX bike salesman Mike reveal that his many tattoos comprise an elaborate map to all the Immunity Idols?

Quick picks:
  • First returnee to get voted off: Brandon. Too nutty to be trusted.
  • Returnee who will surprise us: Erik. He has much to prove after his humiliation in the first "Fans vs. Favorites." He'll do so.
  • Final Three: Returnee Brenda (a great schemer) and two newbies, Eddie and Allie.
  • Winner: Allie. She's a bartender, she's from New York, and she's dismissive of bad liars while not knocking lying. "I don't even mind if you lie to me, just keep track of your lies, you fool."  That's good enough for me!

Thoughts? Share 'em below.

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As mentioned a little while ago, I've sampled a few of the recent "Marvel Now!" books, including the pretty cool Indestructible Hulk. But the most notorious of the recent stories is one that sets the stage for a new Marvel Now title, and that's "Dying Wish" in Amazing Spider-Man #698-700, with 700 being billed as the FINAL issue of Amazing Spider-Man and the end of Peter Parker as the webslinger. The title is giving way to the Superior Spider-Man. What does all that mean?

Here there be SPOILERS. Skip ahead to the paragraph with the Morbius image if you don't want to know any more.

Still here?

Amazing Spider-Man 700Amazing Spider-Man #698-700: OK, in the shocking events of ASM #698, we follow Peter Parker in a typical day of his life, where everything seems to be going pretty well. In the first-person narrative, we see that Peter is feeling his mojo a little more than usual. Then he gets a summons from the Avengers to go to the Raft, a high-security prison for supervillains in New York Harbor. His arch-nemesis, Doctor Octopus, whom we know has been dying for a while, is on his deathbed and is apparently asking for ... Peter Parker. When Spidey asks for Alone Time with Doc Ock, we learn that Ock hasn't been calling for Peter Parker -- he IS Peter Parker, trapping inside this useless, dying body. And the mind of Doctor Octopus is now in Peter's body, with access to all of Peter's knowledge and memory. The entire issue had actually been narrated by Doc Ock.

It's a terrific twist by longtime Spidey scribe Dan Slott, who said he had been setting this up for years, and in the next issue, ASM #699, he revealed exactly how Otto Octavius pulled off the body-swap. The two foes face off a final time in ASM #700, where Peter tries desperately to get back into his own body before Ock's body fails, yet Otto-Spidey seems to have anticipated his every move. Peter-Ock hits the end of the road. Still, in his dying moments, he manages to mentally force Otto to relive all the key events in Peter's life, giving the shocked, humbled Octavius a new insight into what made Spider-Man so indomitable. He learned the good old Stan Lee lesson: with great power comes great responsibility. Otto vows to Peter that he'll protect his loved ones and honor his name... and with that, "our" Peter Parker dies, and Otto -- still arrogant even as a "hero" -- says he'll be a better Spidey than Peter ever was, hence the Superior Spider-Man.

Naturally, comics fandom being what it is, this story caused a ruckus! Disturbingly, Slott even received death threats. (Jesus, really, folks? I know we get emotionally invested in these books sometimes, but it's still a fictional character. I'm sure a few of the folks who got crazy-mad had been mocking Twilight fans months earlier for threatening Kristin Stewart after she cheated on "Edward.") 

The big question, though, is: Were these good comic books? For ASM #698 and 699, the answer is a solid yes. For readers who managed to avoid spoilers, the twist in #698 was simultaneously infuriating, stunning, and jaw-droppingly brilliant. Seeing the "magician's trick" in #699 was cool, too, as was seeing the dying Peter-Ock figuring out a way to escape the Raft. As for the finale in #700, it had a big bar to clear. Not only was it the last issue of Amazing Spider-Man, but in today's world -- with advance solicitation of upcoming issues and Internet spoilers -- the days of being totally surprised by an "event book" are gone. Thus, the ending loses a bit of steam. Still, Slott makes it work, and the death of Peter Parker is an appropriately damn sad occasion. 

Overall, "Dying Wish" succeeds as an excellent comic book tale -- on its own merits. Taken as part of the Marvel Universe, however (and taking into account the money machine that Spidey-merchandise continues to be), do you or I have ANY doubt that somehow Peter Parker will return to life in, say, two years and kick Ock out of his body? Johnny Storm was "killed"  two years ago; he came back to the FF. Both Captain America and Batman were killed; they came back (in a couple of nutty ways, admittedly). And let's not forget the Big One: the Death of Superman in the early '90s. How long did that last?

That's why I can't get overly excited about this tale, one way or the other. I didn't include it in my previous post of the year's Top 10 for that reason, and frankly, I can't see myself picking up Superior Spider-Man. Just because the story was excellent doesn't mean I much care to read what will be the short-lived career of Spider-Ock. Also, the tiny, cynical part of me realizes that Marvel is aware of this sentiment and will be more than happy to market "the Return of Amazing Spider-Man" in 2014. Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Morbius the Living VampireMorbius the Living Vampire #1: Yep, I'm an admitted longtime fan of the scientifically cursed Michael Morbius, going all the way back to Amazing Spider-Man #101-102 by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, after the Comics Code relaxed the post-EC Comics restrictions on supernatural characters. Neither strictly villain nor hero, Morbius has mostly just wanted to be left alone while he tried to find a way to peacefully (and non-fatally) satisfy his hunger for blood. After many appearances in Spider-Man's book the past few years -- and last year's garishly great Legion of Monsters mini-series -- Morbius has gotten his own title, by Joe Keatinge (Glory) and Rich Elson. It's an effective kick-off, with Morbius having finally traded in his '70s glam-goth outfit for a more nondescript hoodie and jeans as he hides out in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. 

You get a decent sense of the character's personality through the first-person narration, where Morbius helpfully explains what sets him apart from the undead variety of bloodsucker. And it's a good cliffhanger at the end. Still, I wish we had gotten more of a hint as to where Keatinge intends to take the series. Will it be as balls-to-the-wall nuts as Morbius' original color series in Adventure into Fear, or will be it more horror oriented? In any event, the first issue of Morbius offers enough of a reason to stick around and find out. Rating: 4 out of 5.

Avengers #1-2: I think I figured out why I don't fully embrace Jonathan Hickman and Jerome Opeña’s new Avengers title. Oh, make no mistake: I like it quite a bit. It's beatifully wriitten - almost poetic, in fact - and it truly is "big, cool, and gorgeous." But the title is meant to be the flagship of Marvel Now, right? It's capitalizing justifiably on the huge success of last summer's film and is intended to attract a "new audience" (the Holy Grail of modern comics industry), which would include a sizable group of young readers, too. All correct, right?

Yet after two issues of this mainstream superhero comic, there has barely been a punch. (In issue #2: zero.) Normally, that's something praiseworthy, and I don't mean to sound simplistic, but for a new title that yells "AVENGERS," shouldn't there be more POW or WHAM?

It'd be different If it were a continuation of an existing title; in such a situation, a creator should feel free to go nuts, as Hickman rightly did in his just-concluded Fantastic Four run. For this title, though, at this time, Marvel may be letting a golden opportunity slip through its fingers by not bringing some Whedonesque action to the printed/digital page of this new comic. Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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Top 10 geek culture highlights of 2012

Greetings, 2013! Your predecessor, 2012, was a disappointment, mostly due to reasons having nothing to do with this blog. Granted, the Mayans did provide amusement. Fortunately, from the perspective of pop culture and All Things Geek, 2012 was humongous! Remember that stuff that got you ostracized or mocked 20 or 30 years ago? Well, they’re money-making machines now. (Whether or not that’s a good thing is a different story....)

Here are my picks for the top 10 tidbits:

10. The Hobbit and 48 frames per second. On its own, Peter Jackson’s cinematic return to Middle-Earth would be newsworthy. But the director caused an Internet freakout when, at a summer convention, he secretly unveiled the first Hobbit footage – which he had shot at the newly developed 48-frames-per-second rate (double the century-long standard of 24 fps). The reaction was not good, with many commenters saying the crisp realism of the new rate made the film resemble cheap video, almost like ‘70s Brit TV. The controversy dogged the film for months prior to its December release.

9. The SOPA blackout. You likely forgot about the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA). You should remember, though, that the Internet fight against it actually impacted national policy. Here’s a memory jog if you need it

8. SpaceX’s launch to the International Space Station. For the first time, a privately held company delivered cargo to astronauts onboard the ISS – a long-awaited step in space exploration. That the name of the spacecraft was the Dragon? Deliciously nerdy icing on the cake.

7. The Firefly reunion at San Diego Comic-Con. Ten years after the series’ debut and cancellation, Josh Whedon, Nathan Fillon, and crew took the stage to celebrate the show, its enduring legacy, and – above all - the fans. Watch the video and have tissues on standby. I’m getting verklempt all along again....

6. The Mars Curiosity Rover. et another big science story, and really, who didn’t pay attention to this when it arrived on Mars? Mind-blowing science moment of the year: an astonishing, high-definition video of Curiosity’s high-speed descent – taken by Curiosity itself. Smile-inducing science moment of the year: the congratulatory giddiness in the Control Room skip to the last 2 minutes) among straight-laced dudes, nerds, old hippies, an Alec Baldwin stand-in, and THIS guy.

5. D&D Next announcement. Last January, in a well-orchestrated display that got mainstream attention, Wizards of the Coast announced it was developing a new version of Dungeons & Dragons. Since then, hoping to win back many gamers who disliked 4E, WotC has been conducting a smart, open, ongoing, and well-received public playtest – nearly the opposite of how it rolled our 4E. In terms of its arrival in a hungry marketplace, the timing as perfect, for reasons I described here. The final version of the game is likely still a year and a half away, which gives the developers and the fans plenty of time to tweak the rules – and gives WotC time to figure out how to salvage the online DDI, which has been losing subscribers and revenue ever since 4E presumably became Dead System Walking.

4. Kickstarter and big, BIG bucks. The crowdfunding site Kickstarter has been around for a couple of years (hey, it helped us to fund Foreshadows!), but it made big news in 2012 with multiple projects that raised more than $1 million in support, including the Reaper Miniatures project in August that raised over $3.4 million. Wow.

3. Marvel's The Avengers and the triumph of geek media. You know the story with Joss Whedon’s film. Enormously successful, enormously entertaining (my quickie review here). But it was not alone! From The Amazing Spider-Man to a reanimated Walking Dead to the success of CW’s Arrow series to Entertainment Weekly’s cover story (!) on Doctor Who a first for ANY British TV show), 2012 will go down in history as a banner year for geek properties in mainstream media. Unfortunately, 2012 is noteworthy for another reason….

2. The Dark Knight Rises shooting. There have been gun-related massacres before and – horrifically – even worse gun-related massacres to come later in the year. What made the insanity and death in Aurora, Colorado uniquely disturbing for us was that in happened in a movie theater, the place that has long served as our mental refuge from often-grim reality.

1. Disney revives Star Wars. Winner, hands down – perhaps the biggest story of the past 10 years. When Disney bought Lucasfilms and immediately announced that new Star Wars films were already in the Mouse Pipeline, fans rejoiced. After a couple of decades of reissues, digital retweaking (Han shot first, damn it!), and Jar-Jar Binks, we’re all excited to see fresh minds and talents bring balance to the Force. And, yes Leia is a Disney princess.

Honorable mention: The publication of Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero. I can't let 2012 go without mentioning a personal highlight. Not only was I thrilled to have my first work of speculative fiction published, I was also honored and delighted to share Foreshadows' table of credits with a ton of fabulously talented people, including Jeff LaSala, Ari Marmell, Rosemary Jones, Ed Greenwood, and Brian Matthews, whose first novel, Forever Man, is out next month!

We continue recapping Rick Maffei’s 4e D&D campaign, set in the world of Áereth (from Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics). We are currently at sea aboard Lasandra’s Wave, on route to Punjar, where we hope to find more information about the pirate captain Longshanks and the mysterious metallic triangles that have aroused the murderous interest of many people (and freakin’ beholders).

Here, once more, is the party lineup:

  • Mike: Tarthon, minotaur barbarian – Have Axe, Will Travel
  • Steve: Grumhorn, a.k.a. "Grue," dwarf invoker – The Immovable Object. Truly.
  • Me: Graaver Stormcry, longtooth shifter druid-fighter – Sees Life as a Series of Punching Bags
  • Willie: Sebastin, githzerai ranger – able to nab a Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkin at fifty paces
  • Felix: Manael, tiefling bard – new character to come!


Part 1: The Green Mile (After Mile After Mile...)
Following the party’s vicious betrayal by Manael (vile pigeon-murderer!!) and the attack of the hydra, there are many injuries among the crew (and the adventurers), and Captain Cross orders a quick assessment of the damage to Lasandra’s Wave. Cross is pretty angry – and is understandably not in the mood to trust any of the party after what just happened. Still, Grue earns some points back by volunteering to use a Make Whole ritual to repair the damage to the ship’s mast and hull. Good timing, too, as a squall is approaching, perhaps four hours away. Cross also says that because of the oil used to drive off the hydra, the ship’s remaining supply is low.

The rest of us try to process the day’s events. How long has Manael been planning this? Is the mysterious Xollox connected to the metallic triangle and the hunt for Longshanks’ treasure? Why is Hallowell so concerned about the summer fashions in Punjar? We don’t believe the hydra was part of some master plot – it’s more likely that Manael decided the hydra’s appearance was as good a time as any to make his move.

Stormcry takes out the triangle and concentrates on it. The shifter feels as though he could reach into someone else’s mind... but that’s as far as he gets. So it’s a conduit? Hmm. He tries to concentrate next on Manael the Goat-Fornicating Betrayer ... no luck. Does “contact” require another triangle on the other end (a la the Palantir in Lord of the Rings)? Questions for a later time.

We endure a really rough night. The squall is brutal. The adventurers take the lead in tending to the ship during the first half of the stormy night. Grue and Stormcry don’t fare so well in the rocky seas and are ordered to go below decks by Nathan... but not before several of us spot something large flying overhead. Twice! In any event, we have regained some respect in Cross’ eyes, as it’s apparent to everyone that the ship wouldn’t have survived this far without the repairs from Grue’s ritual.

Oops, maybe spoke too soon... around 4:30 a.m., there’s a big crash. The mast has broken again! The ship is spinning, Grue has no more residuum on hand to perform another Make Whole ritual, and Hallowell insists on singing Dead or Alive’s “Spin Me Round.” Nevertheless, Grue, Tarthon, Stormcry, and five crewmen are able to use sheer brute force to restore the mast. Although the worst of the storm seems to be over, we’re not done yet. Still, Nathan sees that we’re all spent and he orders us back below to rest. We promptly do so and pass out.

Around 7 a.m., we wake up and realize that the ship isn’t rocking. Grue asks, “Are we dead?” We realize that not only is the ship not rocking, it’s not moving. At all. We go on deck to join the others. Through a thick fog, we can make out that the ship is resting on a thick, greenish surface. Vegetation? Skin? Boogers?

We quickly see that it’s matted, rotting seaweed. There are no noises, no movement, no birds. As the mists burn away in the morning sun, we can see in the distance another ship... and another... and another. And the thick, green, Sargasso surface stretches as far as the eye can see. One awestruck, terrified crewman, Curtis, whispers, “Journey’s End.” Another crewman quickly tells him to shut up. The rest of us start getting Ravenloft and Twilight Zone heebie-jeebies. This situation is NOT GOOD. We tell our resident sage, Elbarr, to come up. Captain Cross looks through the spyglass and sees eight to 10 another trapped vessels, and she can barely make out the sight of the ocean, far in the distance. Curtis continues to whisper morale-killing doom and gloom, so we suggest he go on grick-watching duty below decks. Heh.

We suggest to Cross that a few of us walk over to the closest ship. At the very least, we might find oil. So off Stormcry, Tarthon, Grue, and Sebastin go. We poke ahead with the trusty 10-foot pole as we walk along the spongy, stinky, seaweed surface. It’s thick and deep. In fact, it feels completely solid after the first few feet. As we walk around the bow of the closest ship, we can see its name: Mistcutter. By the lacy undergarments of Ildavir, this is Captain Longshanks’ ship!! It’s been missing for about nine years.

We managed to climb up the kelp on the hull and get to the main deck. Grue falls once. Stormcry senses that the ship has been here for several years, at least. We’re probably the first ones to set foot on the Mistcutter in that time. It’s eerily quiet, other than an occasional, unsettling creak. As we go down the stairs, we see that the door has been broken. Our quick examination shows that it was barred – from the inside. EeeeEEEEEeeee.... can we leave now?

Down on the main crew level, we see that the next set of stairs – leading to the lower decks and the hold – continues down into muck. Our knowledge of ship design is pretty lame, but we know that there may be another one or two levels below – and they’ve been sucked into the Sargasso. In the crew quarters, we see no signs of life, just more muck and broken bunks and chairs. Was there a fight? If so, where are the bodies? One bit of good news: stuff! We spot two casks full of oil and several chests. Stormcry uses his crowbar to open the chests. In total, we find: a pouch with assorted gems; two silver armguards inscribed with draconic skulls; an old gray cloak; a wooden, twisted, rune-covered staff with a silver cap; 68 silver bars (worth 200 gp each), plus 260 gp and 402 sp. As we’re opening the chests, Sebastin runs back up to give Lasandra’s Wave the “We’re still alive for another few minutes” sign.

On this deck we find the captain’s quarters. Its broken door had also been barred from the inside. In the center of the room is a table, on the edge of which a book is teetering – over a hole in the floor leading to the muck-filled levels below. The ship’s occasional creaking becomes a groan. The ship moves slightly – and the book falls into the hole. Stormcry jumps in after it! Suddenly, several vine-like tendrils burst out of the muck to grab him! With arrow and avenging light, respectively, Sebastin and Grue destroy two of the tendrils, and Stormcry nabs the book and is quickly pulled out by Tarthon. It’s probably a good idea to get out of here. Because walking back across the seaweed surface with several chests full of silver bars sounds both risky and impractical, we decide to drop one of the chests over the side to see if the surface is really like a skin. Sebastin and Stormcry, the two members of the party perhaps best in tune with nature, indeed notice – and feel – a reaction as the heavy box hits the surface. We decide to keep the jewelry and silver armguards hidden from Captain Cross and the rest of the crew, but we’ll share the gold and silver coins. The chests of silver bars will have to stay where they are, until or unless we figure a way out of this.

We return to Lasandra’s Wave and note with concern that the ship has already sunk several inches deeper into the muck. We share the full details with Cross, Hallowell, Nathan, and Elbarr. We also examine the book, which is truly the log – and last words – of Captain Longshanks himself. His account is a terrifying one and has already been optioned by Hammer Films. Longshanks mentioned that there are four triangles and that he had acquired two. Once he found the other two, he would return to the Star. However, the Mistcutter became trapped in this muck just as we did. Members of his crew disappeared only to return as the walking dead – their bodies taken over and animated by the evil, plant-like intelligence that resides at the center of this decaying land. In his final entry, Longshanks says, “I know now that these were but the children of what dwells at this land’s heart. I must seek the mother at this heart, for to destroy the mother is to destroy the brood. If only this had been done to the Kardashian family... I can hear voices whispering all over us. They draw near.”

Ack. So then... guess we’ll have to attack the “Black Heart.” Happy happy joy joy – NOT! Cross isn’t thrilled at the party’s plan to depart at first light for the center of the Sargasso, but our options are few. The ship can’t move, and the same “muck zombies” that came for Longshanks will presumably come for us. As “Plan B,” another group will begin the arduous task of physically carrying one of the ship’s longboats to the edge of the region. If we fail, at least there’s a tiny chance of some folks making it out of here. As our ship is the most recent arrival, and since the land seems to grow from the center out as the “mother” absorbs more lives, Team Longboat might encounter fewer hazards. And monkeys might fly out of my butt. The adventurers agree to sleep on deck tonight and take watch. We expect the worst.

Fighting muck zombies!And we’re not disappointed! Creepy whispers of “Outsiders... outsiders... Warriors… come out to plaAAAY…” begin in the darkness outside the ship. Seconds later, six kelp-covered and tattered “muck zombies” clamber over the railing and attack! Their first, off-balance, "Thriller" moves miss Grue and Tarthon. Sebastin hits with rapid shot. Tarthon hacks into one with brutal slam and knocks it over the side! Grue successfully hits with astral wind. Stormcry hits one with grappling strike, yet the zombie escapes the grab. Grue is struck, and two zombies pile on Tarthon, who tries to retaliate with escalating violence. Grue again hits with astral wind. Stormcry summons two spectral lions, which miss their targets. Two more zombies begin to climb up! One of the first zombies misses Grue, but another gets a good shot on Tarthon. Sebastin lets fly with two arrows via rapid shot – and knocks both of the new arrivals back over the edge! Tarthon finishes off his opponent with pressing strike. Grue blasts another with avenging light.

One muck zombie clobbers Sebastin, while another creature’s blow glances off Tarthon’s armor. Sebastin steps back, lets fly with clever shot, and sends his foe over the side. Stormcry knocks one to the deck and stamps on its neck with crushing foot. Nat 20! Tarthon gets into position with pressing strike against the zombie that Stormcry pinned and – finally – gets to use the Headman’s Chop feat to deal bonus damage. 21 points! Suddenly, though, the hatch on which Tarthon is standing creaks under the minotaur’s massive weight and – CRASH!! Tarthon plummets to the deck below! Eventually, however, we’re able to clear the deck, thanks mostly to Sebastin’s clever shot and Grue’s astral wind at the end.

Now what? We can’t deal with this for much longer. One way or another, this must be over by tomorrow night. Sebastin fires a flaming arrow into the darkness toward the Mistcutter. We see three more muck zombies approaching from way off, and we realize with horror that they’re coming in waves from the different ships. And there are a LOT of ships.

Continue to Part 2: Journey to the Center of the MuckCollapse )

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