Sunday, May 3, 2015

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (spoilers below the fold)

On Friday I took my daughter to see the newest Marvel film, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Even in the middle of the day on a weekday, the theater was quite full, but not sold out. We saw it in normal 2D, and I couldn't see any scenes where seeing it in 3D would have added anything, but someone who saw it in 3D or Imax 3D might have better insight.

(As an aside, if your local theater is an AMC, and you see more than a couple of movies each year and get popcorn when you do, it is so worth paying the money for the AMC Stubs card. It really does pay for itself many times over.)

I am an unabashed MCU fanboy, and I went into the movie with high expectations. And I have to say those expectations were not disappointed. This really is a worthy successor to the various predecessor films, especially the first Avengers. I put it in the top five of all MCU movies, behind The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Iron Man.

Some spoiler-free thoughts:

I found the plot to be serviceable. It does tie up some loose ends from previous films, and goes off in a fairly reasonable direction. Some people think it was over-complicated, but since when it comes down to it this is a comic-book movie, I do not go into it expecting Casablanca. It worked, and was reasonably well-explained.

What really sold me on the film was the interactions between the Avengers themselves. In the first Avengers movie, we saw Thor fight Iron Man, Hulk fight Black Widow, Iron Man bicker with Captain America, Hawkeye fight all of them... it got old. But in this movie, we see genuine character development. We find out new things about the characters, and the relationships between the characters really moved forward. They're not the same people at the end of the movie that they were at the beginning, and it was great to see. Those moments are used to break up the incredible action sequences, rather than gobs of tedious exposition. There was one Avenger vs. Avenger fight, which has been heavily teased in the trailers, but in the context of the film it didn't seem nearly as tacked on.

The action sequences are, of course, awesome. Although I did find the fight sequence at the very beginning to be a little off. The CGI in places was obvious, and there was some shaky-cam that I found distracting. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the bad guys; they were simply there any time an Avenger needed something to blow up or someone to kill. But the rest of the action sequences were terrific, and the shaky-cam seems to have really been used sparingly after the first twenty minutes.

James Spader's Ultron, as the central villain of the piece, was beautiful to behold. Seeing that very human dialog come out of that robotic face made his quips and sarcasm all the creepier. He was a much better villain than the Chitauri ever were in the first Avengers movie. The other characters are well-established so we don't need to go through the awkward "getting to know you" scenes, and the actors by this time are so comfortable in their roles that it seems effortless for them.

If anything, I take points away from the movie because it is so big. We see lots of different places in the world getting destroyed, and in a way that detracts from the interpersonal interactions that make this film so wonderful.

All in all, this was a worthy addition to the MCU, and most definitely worth seeing. There is one helping of schawarma halfway through the credits, but nothing at the very end. Unless the key grip is your cousin, no need to stay until the lights come up.

Spoilery thoughts below the fold:

Monday, April 27, 2015

Elements of a Homebrewed Campaign

I've been giving some thought lately to setting up a homebrew campaign for some 1st Edition gaming. I'm a big proponent of Gygax's "bulls-eye" method of campaign design; sketch out the broader world first, and then do ever-more-detailed descriptions of a given area, until you've gotten down to the individual village or town that the PCs will be starting off in. This gives you a good idea of what's around them, and makes it easier to write new things when the PCs start to move around.

Here are some things that I want to include (or am at least considering including) in this process:

  • Areas for at least five different civilizations (European Feudal, Chinese, Japanese, Middle-eastern, and Indian)
  • Remnants of an ancient and more advanced civilization, half-remembered, with the idea that there are constant attempts to return to that "golden age"
  • An area where there is a frontier, into which civilization is slowly spreading, requiring adventurer types to scout and clear regions before settlers begin to arrive
  • That frontier area may be linked directly to that lost civilization, or may not, depending on how it plays out in the design phase
  • Intrigue on a political as well as religious plane; true religious animosities and schisms should be present to provide difficulties and opportunities for the PCs
  • Perhaps have the pantheons of the different religions all be "echoes" of the One True Religion which the ancient civilization practiced (deities are similar, but not identical, across pantheons)
  • Opportunities for large-scale wargaming to be played out with miniatures
Comments welcome. Would this be the sort of world you'd like to game in?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Review: Daredevil (spoiler-free)

A few weeks ago, Netflix released all thirteen episodes of their Daredevil series on their service, based on the Marvel comic (and having nothing to do with the 2003 film starring our new Batman, Ben Affleck). The series has already been picked up for a second season, even though its companion series -- Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders -- haven't even aired yet.

Based on the long-running Marvel comic featuring blind attorney Matt Murdock, whose super-powered senses allow him to fight crime at night in New York's toughest neighborhoods, the Netflix series captures the setting perfectly. The west side of Manhattan was one of my haunts in my youth, and the series has it perfectly, and is especially effective at capturing the tension between those who love the neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen as it is, even though it is flawed and crime-ridden, and those who want to see it lifted up and gentrified, also out of love for the place.

The series doesn't go overboard in showcasing Murdock/ Daredevil's super-senses. They are obviously present, but there's no flashy "sonar effect" on the screen or anything like that; it's subtle, like playing a heartbeat in the background that is at first barely noticeable, and then bringing up the volume so you understand it's Murdock hearing it.

Charlie Cox absolutely nails attorney Matt Murdock. He's smart, charming, and even at times goofy, but always with a serious edge. He captures the character's blindness, and it's difficult to remember the actor isn't blind himself. The action sequences are long, and bloody, and that's deliberate, fitting in with one of the overall themes of the show that hearkens back to Murdock's father.

The other big star is Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, the "Kingpin" from the comic books, a powerful crime lord. Frankly, I didn't think he'd have the physicality for the role, but he pulls it off nicely. His performance was totally unexpected to me, but it worked very well for this character; he's not the supremely confident master of crime, but he's vulnerable, and downright shy and uncertain. That, too plays into one of the themes of the show, and is used to drive the plot forward in a very clever way.

The supporting cast is wonderful, both Murdock's friends (Foggy Nelson and Karen Page) and enemies (many and varied). There's a real chemistry between long-time friends and newly-minted law partners Murdock and Nelson, and when at times things become strained between them you really feel it.

The show definitely has a darker edge to it than anything we've seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most of the action takes place at night, and there's plenty of blood, broken bones, and brutality. Not what you'd expect on ABC during prime-time. But I like the fact that Marvel is taking the MCU into yet another direction; the dark crime drama. But, true to their form, it's not a relentlessly grinding grimdark show; there are moments of humor throughout that keep the episodes lively.

The show is firmly in the MCU; there are little easter eggs throughout (mentions of Killer Kreel from Agents of SHIELD, for instance, and the Roxxon Energy Corporation, from Iron Man 3), and of course mentions of the attack on New York that occurred in the show's recent past and in a way set the stage for the plot arc. It will be very interesting to see how and if some of the characters from this show make it into other corners of the MCU, and vice versa.

All in all, I highly recommend this show for anyone who's a fan of Marvel movies or the superhero genre in general, as well as those who like a good crime drama. I had a really good time watching this show, and powered through it in less than a week (for me, that's really damn fast).

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD getting spinoff

Entertainment Weekly is reporting an exclusive story - Marvel's Agents of SHIELD is getting a spinoff show next year (which pretty much means a third season is a given). That, and there's a 60% chance that the excellent Peggy Carter will also be getting another at-bat, probably during AoS's mid-season hiatus (but that's a topic for another post).

Naturally, there's already a lot of speculation about what that spinoff show will feature, but the EW article has this to say:
We don’t know is which characters from the current series will be moving over to the proposed spinoff – so let the speculation being on that. There won’t be an implanted pilot episode this season directly setting up the spinoff, either (like how CW launched The Flash out of Arrow). However, story elements that are still to come on SHIELD this year will be used to lay the groundwork for the potential new series. So by the end of the season – assuming the details for this project haven’t already leaked, which is rather unlikely – the spinoff concept should be clear.
Now that's interesting: "story elements that are still to come on SHIELD this year." We know there are going to be 22 episodes of Season 2, and we know that 4 of those episodes are going to be broadcast (and therefore, presumably, take place) after Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. And it's been confirmed that there will be some direct tie-ins between the television show and the movie, not as drastic as the changes that Captain America: The Winter Soldier wrought, but they will be there.

So given those two elements, I think it's safe to assume that the spinoff series is going to have something to do with the impact of Avengers 2 on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The question is, what could that be?

We've seen all sorts of rumors about some major (female) character who will be introduced. And there were photos of Tony Stark, Captain America, and Thor conversing while a bunch of SHIELD recruits were training in the background (running on a track). So my theory, and it's just a theory and based on a whoooole lotta guesswork, is that by the end of the movie we're either going to see SHIELD reconstituted as a single entity, no longer on the run from the authorities, but no longer the omniscient and omnipotent organization it was under Nick Fury (there is precedent; Tony Stark was the director of SHIELD for a while in the comics, and doing that would nicely set up next year's Captain America 3: Civil War), or some sort of successor organization would be set up along similar lines (SWORD, for example), or both.

Now, in the comic books, SWORD is sort of like SHIELD, but deals more specifically with alien incursions and the like. That would fit in well with the idea that there is now a recognized "alien problem" (first the Chitauri, then the Kree-DNA-enhanced Inhumans, and then the Chitauri-technology-enhanced Ultron*), and would provide a nice symmetry with the parent show in terms of names.

"Marvel's Soldiers of SWORD." has a nice ring to it, and would also lead well into Phase 3 of the MCU's master plan, which looks to be more outer-space focused, with six out of the nine planned films having something to do with the galactic side of the MCU. Plus, it would give Marvel a chance to bring in a lot more of their huge universe of galactic races and characters (the Skrulls are unfortunately out, but there are tons of others, like the Badoon or the Dire Wraiths) including the possibility of giving some deep Kree backstory for films like Captain Marvel or Inhumans, which could then be spared the necessity of lots of exposition.

UPDATE: Nope. Looks like the spinoff is going to be about Mockingbird and her ex-husband. Although there's some mysterious third Marvel TV show in the works as well, apparently...

* Not a spoiler, just a wild guess based on what I've seen in the trailers.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Apparently this is some sort of holiday...

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. --Matthew 27:51-53

Friday, March 20, 2015

Let's Read: Greyhawk Adventures (Part 7)

Boy, has it been a long time since I've done one of these. But we're not through the book yet, and there's plenty more to cover. This time: the Hall of Heroes.

The Hall of Heroes is a selection of fourteen NPCs with stats and in-depth descriptions and histories. Seven of them are in the City of Greyhawk itself (remember this was published at a time before the Greyhawk Wars, so it's still theoretically set in CY 576), and the rest are from further afield in the Flanaess.

The trouble is, most of these NPCs are not ones that the PCs are ever likely to encounter, at least on a regular basis. Thus, their inclusion in the book is something of a mystery. We have:

  • Nerof Gasgol, Lord Mayor of Greyhawk
  • Derider Fanshen, constable in Greyhawk (also a 12th level cleric of Pelor)
  • Sental Nurev, Captain-General of the Watch in Greyhawk
  • Org Nenshen, Master of the Thieves Guild in Greyhawk
  • Turin Deathstalker, Master of the Assassins Guild in Greyhawk
  • Ren o' the Star, Master of the Traders Union in Greyhawk
  • Jaran Krimeeah, lord of the Valley of the Mage
  • Tysiln San, First Protector of the Valley of the Mage
  • Korenth Zan, Father of Obedience of the Scarlet Brotherhood
  • Alesh Marin, member of the Scarlet Brotherhood (in Stoink)
  • Karll of Urnst, Duke of Urnst
  • Tang the Horrific, Prince of the Clan (from the Dry Steppes, but now a wandering mercenary barbarian)
  • Timitrios Spartakos, magic-user originally from the Great Kingdom, now in Greyhawk, and with a backstory tied to Jaran Krimeeah
  • Guiliana Mortidus, cleric and member of the Horned Society
Of these, the DM isn't likely to really need the likes of the Lord Mayor and heads of the guilds of the city of Greyhawk (especially when they are covered in the City of Greyhawk boxed set, which appeared the year after this book was published), or the Duke of Urnst. Figures like the Mage of the Valley and the head of the Scarlet Brotherhood are deliberately supposed to be obscure, and detailing them here destroys their mystique. 

The only ones that look to be particularly useful in a day-to-day sense are Derider Fanshen, Alesh Marin, Tang the Horrific, Timitrios Spartakos, and Guiliana Mortidus. Tang could be a terrific recurring character, one full of bluster and flash who storms onto the scene, steals it, and then bounds away. Guiliana could be a good long-term protagonist for a mid-level party (she's an 8th level cleric, and works as an agent for the Horned Society who's been sent on missions before, and has a band of underlings). Timitrios could be a good magic-user-for-hire; he's got some interesting quirks and a great backstory, with some built-in enemies that could spell trouble for anyone he's associated with (like the PCs).

On the whole, this is one of the least useful sections of the book. Five out of fourteen NPCs are useful in a day-to-day sense, which is a pretty bad percentage. Much of the art is recycled as well, which is doubly disappointing, but there are a few fun new pieces that do the job.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Review: Elemental Evil Player's Companion

A few days ago, Wizards of the Coast released their Elemental Evil Player's Companion, a 5th edition D&D supplement intended to expand player capabilities and possibilities for the upcoming Elemental Evil -  Princes of the Apocalypse story arc. It is a free download, and is available either from the WotC website or through DriveThruRPG.

The whole thing is 25 pages long, and consists essentially of two sections; races and spells.

The races include aarakocra (bird-men who first appeared in the 1E Fiend Folio), Deep Gnomes (aka Svirfneblin, underdark-dwelling gnomes who first appeared in the 1E adventure D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa), Genasi (descendants of trysts between mortals and genies, with attendant magical powers, first found in the 2E Planewalker's Handbook), and goliaths (stone-like beings related to giants, who first appeared in the 3.5 Races of Stone).

The aarakocra are now native to the elemental plane of air, and aside from the powers you'd expect based on their physical form (they're able to fly, and can use their talons in combat), they don't seem to be particularly over-powered.

Deep gnomes were originally quite over-powered, but in this version they seem to be quite well aligned with other player races (there is an optional feat that allows a deep gnome character some innate magical power, but even then it's nothing compared to the 1E ability to summon earth elementals).

Genasi come in four types (air, earth, fire, water) and each has some magical powers and damage resistance appropriate to their respective genie heritage. I'd be hard pressed to see why a player might choose not to play one, given that some of them are quite handy.

Finally, goliaths are physical powerhouses, getting bonuses of 2 to STR and 1 to CON, and some other size and toughness induced skills as well. While perhaps not quite so overpowering as a half-giant from Dark Sun or a half-ogre from Greyhawk, I can see some players making this their default race when creating a "tank".

The second part of the Companion gives details on some 45 or so new spells, of varying levels and types (with the glaring exception of cleric spells), but all with some sort of elemental theme. Most are new, but I did notice Melf's Minute Meteors (originally from the 1E Unearthed Arcana) makes an appearance, and all seem well enough balanced on a first reading (I haven't had time to play with any of these new spells, obviously, so that assessment might change after some chances to break the game with the new spells).

While I like the fact that the 5E team is obviously self-consciously plucking material from across the history of D&D, and it's nice to see more free material, I found myself disappointed that there was nothing class-based herein. No backgrounds, no new clerical domains (indeed, nothing new for clerics at all!), no new arcane traditions, no new druid circles, no new sorcerous origins, and no new warlock patrons. The only new feat is associated with the deep gnome race. It's entirely possible that the Companion will be updated to include this sort of material, and I do feel somewhat guilty complaining that a free supplement doesn't have more stuff in it, but it does seem that something billed as a Player's Companion would have some more of those basic building-blocks of character construction.

As for my own purposes, I will certainly be able to use some of the new spells in my Temple of Elemental Evil project. The deep gnome race will naturally come in handy if I ever do anything underdark-related. But I don't really see allowing the other character races as PC choices, except perhaps for a very specific short-term game. Still, it's worth getting, as the price is right and any DM running a 5E game will certainly find the spells at least useful.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Working on...

Hi all.

Sorry that I've been relatively silent this past month or so. I've been distracted by a number of things, almost all non-game-related, including setting up an Asatru group here in northern NJ, (real-world) work stuff, and family in general. But I've not been completely idle on the gaming front. What time I've been able to devote to things gaming have been split between my online Celestial Imperium campaign (testing out a bunch of Oriental Adventures-type stuff for Adventures Dark and Deep) and this little thing...

I'm aiming for a summer release, but nothing's official.

I promise I'll try to start posting more regularly here. Just wanted to let folks know I'm still alive, and just distracted, but not completely so.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Temple of Elemental Evil boardgame coming

This just in from our friends in Renton...
Other products tied into the Elemental Evil storyline include the Temple of Elemental Evil Adventure System Board Game and pre-painted collectible miniatures, both from WizKids Games. WizKids has also partnered with Perfect World Entertainment to bundle in-game items for Neverwinter with the Temple of Elemental Evil Adventure System Board Game and miniatures boosters. 
This is something of a change, since up until now all I've heard of (in the tabletop realm, anyway) was connected to the Princes of the Apocalypse storyline set in the Forgotten Realms.

A Temple of Elemental Evil board game? Count me in!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Making Temple of Elemental Evil bigger

Some of the criticism of T1-4 over the years has been around the idea that it's just too big. There's too much detail in there, too many things going on for the DM to get a grasp of. I beg to differ. As I've gone through my (literal) deconstruction of the module, I've come to the conclusion that it's not big enough.

Indeed, The Temple of Elemental Evil shouldn't even be on the players' radar initially. I envision a campaign set in the eastern Kron Hills and western Gnarley Forest. The players, being the agents of Celene, Verbobonc, Furyondy, and/or Veluna, are investigating a rise in banditry and humanoid raiding in the region. Nobody suspects the Temple; it was overthrown years ago, and all that remains of it are ruins. And besides, Y'dey and Otis would surely know if anything was going on on that front.

There would need to be a whole set of fleshed-out villages in the forest, complete with deep-cover agents of the now-resurgent Temple. Why would there just be a moathouse thirty miles southwest of the Temple? Surely that would have been only one of a whole system of outworks. There could be a watchtower to the south, originally to keep an eye on Celene and give the humanoids coming up from the Pomarj a place to aim for. And a fort on Imredys Run, now used by river pirates. And an opening in a mine in the central Kron Hills, leading to the Underoerth, whence come those drow that have been seen around the region. All of the former Temple fortifications don't have to have a direct tie-in, but some of them can.

And while Hommlet was described in detail, Nulb was left for the DM to flesh out, after a few detailed locales were given. And Sobanwych remains nothing more than a name. But Verbobonc itself is a hive of Temple operatives, keeping an eye on the forces of Good to the north. I'd like to see a treatment of the whole city, or at least the features that the module says the DM should make sure are described. Could there be evil gnomes in Namburil in the Temple's employ? And what about Corustraith? In later years it's the center of activity for the Rangers of the Gnarley, but in CY 576 it could be a lot more open. They all want full treatments, describing both the agents of the Temple slowly recruiting bandits and humanoids, and the agents of the surrounding Good powers working to keep an eye out.

And maybe Narwell on the Wild Coast also has an interest, but isn't as dedicated to seeing the Temple's resurrection thwarted. And Dyvers? Their interest is in keeping the trade routes open, and maybe knocking Verbobonc down a peg to get a better slice of tariffs on the river trade.

Maybe they're both playing both sides against one another, and hoping to make out with the best deal. That shifty-looking guy in the tavern? Yes, he's not what he seems, but he's not working for the Temple, he's working for Narwell. Lots of factions, lots of intrigue, lots of chances for role-playing and false leads to follow up. Lovely.

The campaign would unfold in typical Gygaxian fashion. The PCs would be sent to take out a particular bandit group, which would lead to another, and another, with the layers of the onion leading to the Temple agents in various villages and locales, leaving the PCs to figure out that there are powers behind the bandits, and then powers behind those powers, leading to the Temple. They spiral in on the Temple over time, rather than that being the obvious goal from the outset.

So rather than the "you arrive at a seemingly peaceful village near the evil Temple", it becomes "you're rooting out some ordinary-seeming bandits, and learn that there's a shadowy figure behind them, and then there's some sort of weird cult behind him, and now it looks like that cult is tied to the Temple, but they also have their tentacles into the government of Verbobonc who hired you in the first place, so just who can you trust?"

I find that a lot more satisfying. Turn the whole thing from two villages and two dungeons into a whole wilderness campaign with multi-layered political intrigues, bandit fighting, clearing out former(?) Temple locales, eventually culminating in the assault on the Temple itself.

And of course once you get there, you realize that the Temple itself is riven with factions, and there's a whole shrine to the Elder Elemental God that nobody, not even the evil priests in the Temple, expects to be there, and loosing Zuggtmoy could strengthen or even loose the EEG inadvertently (and won't Lolth be pleased if THAT happens*)...

Just a snapshot into what my little "fix the ToEE" project is morphing into. It's huge, and sprawling, and wonderfully complex. No idea what will ever become of it.


* Something just occurred to me. Falrinth, the high-level magic-user on level 3 of the dungeon, is obviously an agent of Lolth in the Temple (he's got a small shrine to her in his quarters). He also has the Golden Orb of Death, which could be used to free Zuggtmoy, but seems to be sitting on it for some reason. What if he had instructions from Lolth not to use it or remove it from the premises, not only because she's happy to see Zuggtmoy helpless, but also because she intuits that doing so might lead to the Elder Elemental God (with whom she has a great rivalry and history) being freed from his prison on a distant star? Ohhh, I like that.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Table rules vs. between-game rules

Back when I was playing AD&D 1st edition on a nearly continual basis, there seemed to be two kinds of rules.

The first set of rules were the ones that got used all the time at the table during play. Combat, spellcasting, movement, climbing walls; that sort of thing. That was the sort of stuff that we either had memorized, could flip to the proper table in the DMG, PH, or UA by reflex, or just hand-waved.

However, there was a whole other set of rules that by their nature didn't really come up during the actual game, but had to do with things that happened during down-time. This is when we poured over our character sheets making sure we had enough sacks for our coins, and our backpacks could hold all the iron spikes we carried. When we calculated how many pages our spellbooks had to be to hold all our spells (and whether we needed a traveling spellbook or a regular one). When we figured out height and weight and all that stuff. When we calculated the cost of building manors and fortifications, and hired mercenaries (were hobilars the most efficient use of our money?). Hired criers to advertise for henchmen.

All that down-time activity was incredibly fiddly, and really did require us to stop and read through rules that we didn't use all the time, and carefully work out costs and such in the days before Excel. But it didn't matter, because that was the sort of thing we did on our own, in between games, and if there weren't miniatures that needed painting the time might as well be profitably spent figuring out the total carrying capacity of our hirelings (thanks to the carrying capacity rules that for some reason were only found in the instructions on the Permanent Character Record.

And when we were done, the DM didn't even bother to check the work, because we all trusted each other, and we got on with the game. But those fiddly in-between bits were like a solo game unto themselves, and there are times I miss having the free time to while away the hours figuring out those minutiae.