Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hasbro brings D&D brand to Shapeways via SuperFanArt

The site originally launched just for
"My Little Pony", now includes
Dungeons & Dragons
This caught my eye this morning:
As you may have heard, Hasbro and Shapeways are working together to encourage artists to create and sell 3D designs based on Hasbro brands. Our July launch of SuperFanArt.com featured five artists and their My Little Pony-based designs. The event generated substantial press for the artists and goodwill toward Hasbro and Shapeways for opening up major entertainment brands to fans. Given this early success, we want to expand this opportunity to include more artists, more Hasbro brands and more 3D printed awesomeness.
Starting now, you too can become part of SuperFanArt to promote and sell your designs to other fans. Submit your designs for the following brands:
My Little Pony, Transformers, Dungeons & Dragons, Monopoly, Scrabble (to be sold in US and Canada only), Dragonvale, GI Joe
So if I'm reading this correctly, it is now okay for D&D fans to legally sell D&D miniatures (and jewelry, dice, game tokens, or just about anything that can be 3D printed, short of a replacement pelvis) on ShapeWays via the SuperFanArt.com site. The specific design has to be approved, of course ("no ponies with guns"), but the mechanism is there to sell your own D&D products through an officially-sanctioned website.

Are you pondering what I'm pondering?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

No, cosplaying a drow isn't racist

Is that drow on the right dual-wielding banjos?
So last weekend R.A. Salvatore had his photo taken with some folks cosplaying drow, and it was posted to the official D&D Twitter feed. Naturally, some people went apeshit, because, well, racism.

The line from the Outrage Brigade was that these folks who were dressed up like subterranean elves were actually in "blackface", and thus their choice of costume was demeaning to black people, with some explicitly calling the picture racist:
And it should be pointed out that this is not a new phenomenon. People have been complaining that cosplaying drow = racist for years. Not that it makes it any more valid as a position, but it's not new.

This is blackface; it
deliberately demeans blacks
But I have to say that cosplaying a drow is not "blackface" despite the superficial similarities. "Blackface" is more than just the color of the makeup; there's a whole set of behaviors that are specifically designed to outrageously parody black behavior and speech that really form the core of what makes "blackface" offensive (and rightly so).

The only thing cosplaying a drow has in common with actual blackface is the color of the makeup used. Even the application of the makeup is different; I've never seen anyone cosplaying a drow with exaggerated red lips, for example, or with exaggerated nappy black hair. There are no picaninny dark elf children stuffing giant mushrooms into their mouths, nor are half-drow referred to as mulattos. It is not remotely the same thing, on an objective, aesthetic, level.

This is not blackface; it makes
evil subterranean elves look cool
It is simply not the point of the type of cosplaying at issue, and despite the superficial color of the makeup, there is nothing to link cosplaying with racism, blackface, or minstrel shows. Without the critical addition of the performance, deliberately intended to let the audience know that it is black culture that is being parodied (and demeaned in the process), to assume otherwise is simply to be looking for an excuse to be offended.

Now, it's one thing to say that something doesn't meet the objective definition of blackface (and/or racism). It is also the case that many folks could have a subjective impression that anyone putting on black makeup, for whatever reason, is inherently and irredeemably racist, simply because of the superficial resemblance to historical blackface. Indeed, Dace at the Black Roleplayers Association blog seems to make this very point:
So how do we get such different ideas on what cosplaying Drow means. Most of it comes down to the lived experience for people of color (black people in particular). As last Halloween showed ,when Julianne Houghe darkened her skin to look like her favorite character Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black, black people take the idea of black face very seriously. Even when it's not done to insult black people we still feel slighted. This has to do with racial scares [sic] that have never quite healed. I know on an intellectual level that a lot of time has passed between when black face was done as a way to degenerate [sic] an entire people and now.
So, the question becomes, how to react when someone self-admittedly reacts negatively (and strongly so) to something that is:

  • Not actually the thing that denigrated black people
  • Wasn't done with the intention of denigrating black people

To his credit, Dace addresses both of my points in his post:
But in application what you're doing is black face. The idea of black face isn't static. While yes it originally was meant to be white actors doing minstrel shows [sic - black performers donned blackface too, as it was the convention of the performance at the time] the concept of what black face is has grown. That's just how culture works. ... It is no longer limited to minstrel shows and is pretty much taken to mean anytime someone dresses in black skin. We will never be cool with black face.
"What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?"
That is precisely the point, though. It is not "pretty much taken to mean anytime someone dresses in black skin." It may be taken that way by Dace and those who agree with him, but the mere fact that there are people out there who don't agree with him means it is not "pretty much taken". It's his personal, subjective, opinion, and his personal, subjective, reaction. (And those of the people who agree with him.) What he is (and they are) really saying here is, "Anyone who disagrees with me needs to change how they think on this issue, because I'm right." Except his is a subjective opinion and not an objective fact; more about that essential distinction below.

As for my second point:
I knew Ms. Houghe intent was not to do harm but to honor a character she cherished from an excellent show. That's why I never thought she was racist. However I did feel her choice was in bad taste.
But "bad taste" is a far cry from "racist", and taste is by its very nature a subjective thing. Everyone, every day, does dozens of things that someone else could find in bad taste. Driving a car with a Darwin Fish on it, for instance, is incredibly insulting to tens of millions of Christians in this country. Does that mean that they should be banned, or that people who have them on their cars (as I do) should somehow be publicly shamed, or individually confronted in mall parking lots? Of course not.

Do the collective historic experiences of black people in the United States somehow give them an elevated status in regards to their subjective opinions (even - especially when those opinions are at variance with the reality of what blackface is, and that someone who is demonstrably not racist can still want to dress up like a cool evil subterranean elf)? Does the fact that a century and a half ago their great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a slave mean I need to defer to their subjective, ahistorical opinions in my choice of fantasy costume, even though my ancestors (as far as I know) never owned slaves and in fact fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War?

I do not believe it does.

Not a drow. This is more like an
Andorian without the antennae.
There are some folks out there who do try to split the baby. Cosplaying drow is okay, as long as one does it with gray (or purple???), rather than black, makeup. But that is simply pandering to those who think that their subjective opinions -- that anyone wearing black makeup, for any reason, is in blackface and therefore racist. Bear in mind that the drow were invented by Gary Gygax years before cosplaying became a thing, and certainly before Drizzt made drow "cool". And their description?
Drow are black-skinned and pale-haired. They are slight of build and have long, delicate, fingers and toes.
Not gray, not purple. Black.

Ultimately, though, this whole thing is such a product of our hypersensitive culture. Everyone is looking for something to be outraged about, such that true outrages get lost in the static. When blacks have such disproportionately high rates of incarceration, single-parent families, high school dropouts, and unemployment, it is ludicrous to claim that people dressing up like cool evil subterranean elves are in any way, no matter how minor, contributing to the woes of the black community.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Well, I've certainly been quiet lately

If you've noticed a certain slack in my frequency of posting lately, it's not your imagination. I've got a couple of Really Big Somethings brewing, but I can't take the lid off the pot just yet. Give it a month or two. But in the meantime I'll try to find some game-related ephemera to fill up the lonely gaps.

But man oh man is it going to be awesome.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Game Magazines

By way of explanation of the title of this post, I don't mean "magazines about games". I mean "magazines that come with games", which is a unique subset of the game magazine industry that I thought had reached its zenith in the 1970's and early 80's, but is alive and well and quite vibrant today.

Basically, these were (and are) magazines that not only contain a number of articles about a given topic, and other articles, but an entire ready-to-play game as well. Counters, maps, rules; the whole shebang.

Take, for example, Ares Magazine. This was originally an SPI publication (spun off as a dedicated fantasy/science fiction magazine from their other offerings; Strategy & Tactics and Moves), acquired by TSR, continued as an insert in Dragon for a while, and finally laid to rest. It has recently been resurrected by One Small Step Games, after a successful Kickstarter. You can find pdfs of the original online via the Internet Archive.

I used to be a regular subscriber to the original (alas, all gone now, of course), and was thrilled when I saw it was being revived. I received the first copy of the new magazine a couple of weeks ago, and while I haven't played the included game yet (it's a War of the Worlds game, based on a Martian invasion of London), it certainly looks good and the rules seem clear. The magazine itself contains a bunch of articles on science, as well as a number of pieces of fiction, making it almost like Omni in its feel. If Omni had had a game inside. The one thing I found lacking was the absence of articles about the subject of the game; I would have expected at least some background about H.G. Wells, the War of the Worlds novel, etc. But it's hardly a deal breaker.

There is also Modern War Magazine, whose latest issue I bought today at Maplewood Hobby (the most wide-ranging game store this side of The Compleat Strategist). Published by Strategy and Tactics Press, a division of Victory Games, it (quite obviously) focuses on modern warfare. In the case of the particular issue I got, it had the game "Dragon and Bear", which simulates a conflict between China and Russia in the 21st century, and which is an update of the old SPI game China War.

The magazine comes with encyclopedic treatments of modern Russian and Chinese military equipment, organization, and doctrine, as well as abundant articles on a variety of different issues around the theme of modern warfare. Military junkies will find it a trove of hard information, and the fact that they have articles that support the theme of the game in the issue really helps, in my opinion.

The same company also publishes Strategy and Tactics, which is the descendant of the original SPI publication, and also includes a game in every issue, and themed articles as well as stand-alone articles. S&T is the most general of their offerings, with games and information covering just about every genre imaginable. They also publish World at War, which focuses on World War II.

The magazines with games cost about $30 each, which is actually quite reasonable when you consider you're getting a whole magazine (which alone cost $15, as these are large, glossy, full color magazines stuffed to the gills with content) as well as the game. One of the new (since the 1980's, anyway) innovations is the ability to get issues and subscriptions of the magazines sans the games. This certainly makes them more affordable, but it does make them somewhat less interesting, at least to me.

I'd heartily encourage you to seek out these magazines and give them and their games a try. If you're not ready to take the (admittedly quite hefty) plunge for a subscription, keep an eye on the websites and look for a game that piques your particular interest. It's a legacy that goes back to the heyday of the wargaming hobby, and they're keeping the banner (and quality) flying pretty high.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

I've been playing D&D wrong all these years...

The folks at Zombie Orpheus Entertainment, who have turned the infamous Jack Chick tract "Dark Dungeons" into a movie, have put the first seven minutes up on YouTube:



The rest of the film is available for $5 on their website. Judging by the first free part, it's going to be well worth it. The actors play it straight, but it's all the more hilarious for all of that. Just seeing how that sliver of the country viewed (views?) RPGs -- immensely popular, seductive, and of course the route to the under-cellar of Hell -- is both funny and frightening.


(h/t to io9.com)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

5th Edition Player's Handbook: First Impressions

Now that I've had a weekend to read through and digest the new Player's Handbook for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, I wanted to share some impressions with you.



But seriously, folks...

I'm very impressed with the book itself as well as the rules. The book has some nice artwork, but it seems to steer clear of the "massive spiky armor and 2' wide swords" aesthetic that plagued previous editions. If I had one stand-out complaint about the art, it would be the depiction of halflings. Not only are they shown with shoes (a pet peeve of mine), but their legs are uniformly spindly, making them look like walnuts propped up on toothpicks. The pages have a faux-parchment look that I suppose is unavoidable these days, but it doesn't interfere with reading the text, as there isn't any actual design that shows through behind the text, which was a problem with certain other books in the past.

The rules expand on the previously-released Basic Rules and the boxed Starter Set. We now have a full line-up of character races and classes, with suitable backgrounds, options for customization for each class (bard colleges, barbarian paths, etc.), and the like. I don't personally understand the need for wizards (get spells by studying), sorcerers (get spells through raw/wild magic), and warlocks (get spells through pacts with powerful beings), but I know I'm in a minority in that and have reconciled myself to the fact that not everyone is a Grognard. I won't probably ever play a sorcerer, but I can see how folks might like it (it's very DCC in feel, with a big random table for "wild magic surges" that happen when you roll a 1 when casting a spell).

I am particularly fond of the sprinkling of references to the various published D&D campaign worlds throughout the text. Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, and Eberron even have deity lists in an appendix, but there are references to Dark Sun, Blackmoor, Planescape, Mystara, Birthright, and probably others that I missed. The Wheel of the Planes is also back, which I like. 

Speaking of appendices, there's an Appendix E that gives an extensive "inspirational reading" list. There are some works in there you'd expect to see, like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, ERB's Pellucidar series, and Conan, but some more modern works like The Book of the New Sun and A Song of Ice and Fire. (In a particularly recursive move, Andre Norton's Quag Keep is listed, which is weird because it was itself based on the D&D game...). 

All in all, a very impressive work, and my cautious optimism about 5th Edition seems to have been justified. I'll delve more deeply into the rules themselves in some follow-up posts, and there will be some more Greyhawk-specific material as the months wear on, but I can say that WotC seems to have struck the right tone and content for me with this one. Well done.

Friday, August 8, 2014

How do you read rulebooks?

Now that the 5th Edition Player's Handbook is here (it still feels weird to put that apostrophe in there), at least at those FLGS's who are members of the Wizards Play Network, I wanted to ask a general question. How do you read new rulebooks when you get them?

Do you read them cover-to-cover? Just skim through it and then read the rest in bits and pieces as needed as you play? Something else? Do you mark certain sections as important, or to follow-up later? Do you make margin notes?

Feel free to sound off in the comments. And look for my initial review of the new Player's Handbook later this weekend, once I've had a chance to absorb it.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Whither the FLGS?

My attention was caught by the following exchange on Twitter tonight, in the context of the new D&D Miniatures being available at GenCon prior to their being available at your local FLGS:
(On a technical note, this is the first time I've ever embedded a Tweet in the blog, so I'm sure I've unlocked some new level now.)

The thing is, I can see both sides of the argument.

To @Hahnarama's point, a lot of us have a certain loyalty to our FLGS, and are willing to pay full retail prices simply to help sustain them, because of the added value they provide, beyond simply being a place to buy games. Often, this takes the form of providing a place to play games, which is increasingly more valuable as venues become harder to come by.

I remember back in the early-mid 80's, my local FLGS, Fat Moose Comics and Games, had access to an empty storefront in the mall on Friday and Saturday nights, and at times there were literally hundreds of kids playing D&D there every weekend, myself included, just sitting on the floor in an otherwise-empty mall store (it used to be a clothing store, and it was quite huge). The pizzeria, McDonald's, Chinese restaurant, and video arcade were all more than happy for the extra custom, I'm sure.

The point being that having a place to play the games is just as important as having a place to buy the games, especially when more and more gamers are turning to things like Meetup.com to find players, so inviting complete strangers into your home isn't quite an optimal solution.

On the other hand, I can see Trevor Kidd's point. Conventions like GenCon and Origins are events. People look forward to, and plan for, them for an entire year, and it's nice to be able to provide something special for them to be able to take home as a reward for going to all the trouble and expense of attending. I remember I bought the first-ever-sold copy of Temple of Elemental Evil at GenCon, and it never occurred to me that I was taking money out of Fat Moose's till in doing so.

And to complicate matters are online retailers like Amazon, who regularly discount gaming materials (books and miniatures) by absurd amounts, to the point where the extra money paid to the FLGS for play space might just not seem worth it...

It's a conundrum, and it's not one I pretend to have an answer for. I welcome your thoughts on the subject in the comments.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Review: Artifact of Evil

(Caution: Spoilers)

Hot on the heels of my review of Gary Gygax's first novel, Saga of Old City, we come to the second in the series (and the last published by TSR), Artifact of Evil, published in 1986.

This book has a very different feel than its predecessor, even though the action takes place only a few months after the end of the first. Where Saga of Old City was episodic, with no real plot threading throughout it other than chronicling Gord's early adventures, Artifact of Evil has a definite plot. The forces of Evil are searching for a powerful artifact that can be used to loose the evil god Tharizdun from his prison, thus bringing doom to the world unless they can be stopped.

The novel begins in media res with a siege and battle of a Scarlet Brotherhood-controlled stronghold in the Pomarj, Castle Strandkeep. It's fascinating to see Gygax's version of what a mass battle would look like in a D&D world; there's even a justification for the creation of all those dungeons underneath castles (to make it much more difficult for sappers to undermine castles during sieges; imagine tunneling into a warren of trolls or ogres).

The action doesn't let up as the forces of Good (or, at least, Balance) launch their own expedition to recover the Second Key. The book is then a chase, as the evil Obmi, one of the servants of Iuz, gains the Key and heads northwards to deliver the prize. There's a lot of interesting tactics, and although some of the traitor/spies were telegraphed pretty early, it didn't lessen the story. We see some familiar places like Hommlet, and the Temple of Elemental Evil gets a cameo as Zuggtmoy is freed in a way very different from how that pivotal event happened in Gygax's home campaign. (Which in and of itself raises the question; which is the canonical version of the story? Both have been referenced in official TSR products.)

The new characters, like Deirdre and Oscar of Hardby, were used to good effect to illustrate the female-dominated mores of that place, but the stand-out characters are the villainous Obmi and his insane elf minion, Keak.

Long-time fans of Greyhawk will recognize Obmi as the dwarf in the original Greyhawk campaign on one of the upper levels who controlled a magical device that caused those at whom its beam was aimed to move backwards, even as they were under the illusion they were moving forward. Between his magical apparatus, his boots of speed, and his gnoll guards, he became infamous in the original Greyhawk campaign (Gygax recounts the story in Dragon #287). He is also seen as a slave/adviser to the Fire Giant King Snurre Ironbelly in the adventure G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King, where his stats are given. In the book he is said to have come from the Crystalmists, so that might be a nod to his presence in Snurre's halls.

All in all this is a very satisfying read. There is a wealth of interesting details about the central Flanaess, especially small villages and various personages. We also get our first look at beings such as Iuz, Zuggtmoy, and Iggwilv in action, and having their personalities demonstrated gives a great deal of flavor as to how they could be used in a campaign. All in all I highly recommend the book, and give it five wizards out of five.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Factions of Greyhawk - The Scarlet Brotherhood

The Harpers
One of the new elements in the upcoming 5th Edition D&D rules are factions. Specifically, there are rules for factions in the Forgotten Realms as part of the D&D Adventurers League, which is the new organized play thing (is it replacing the RPGA? I've not seen anything one way or the other). They are, quite coincidentally, much like I had envisioned factions in my own Adventures Great and Glorious; player characters can belong to a faction and gain levels within that faction, and there are certain benefits from doing so. Basically, each time you do something that benefits your faction, you get one or two "renown points" that eventually take you up the ladder within the faction.

In the Forgotten Realms, the factions are the Harpers, the Order of the Gauntlet, the Emerald Enclave, the Lords' Alliance, and the Zhentarim. As far as I know, only the Harpers and the Zhentarim were present in the Realms before the latest incarnation, but I could very well be wrong as I've not kept up with it.

Now, naturally, my thoughts turn to the Greyhawk setting when I see something like this. First and foremost, I don't see any reason the faction mechanism can't work outside of organized play. In a home campaign, there are going to be shadowy and out-in-the-open groups, and having a nice set of mechanics to regulate how the PCs interact with these organizations could be beneficial to a lot of DMs.

The Zhentarim
Factions are of course optional, and not every member of a party need belong to a faction (or the same one!). A PC might go through an entire campaign without ever even encountering a faction, although another PC might find their interactions with a given faction to be central to their experience. It all depends on how the DM has set up the game.

Greyhawk is replete with such factions, that could be used to both support and oppose the activities of the PCs over the years. The Scarlet Brotherhood is an obvious choice, as is the Circle of Eight. I'd throw in Iuz, as he has agents across the Flanaess in various guises and positions. A campaign set in and around the City of Greyhawk might include the Rangers of the Gnarley Forest, and perhaps the Greyhawk Thieves' Guild. I'm not sure if the Old Faith would count as a faction in this sense of the word, but there's definitely some group of Druids in the Flanaess operating in a coherent fashion (the "Oaken Concatenation" perhaps?).

There are still some details yet to come about the mechanics of the various levels work (mentoring at level 2/4, downtime at level 3), but there's enough there to at least get an idea. Let's see how this works.

The Scarlet Brotherhood

Faction Overview

The Scarlet Brotherhood (also known as the Brothers of the Scarlet Sign) can trace its lineage all the way back to the vanished Suel Imperium. Although the hierarchy of the Brotherhood places its highly trained monks at the top, followed by assassins and thieves, it has agents and operatives of all sorts pursing its subtle and dangerous ends. Those who operate openly offer sage counsel and seemingly wise advice; those who are less open about their ties to the Brotherhood are ruthless in their obedience to the orders of their superiors, to further the end of one day seeing the Suel dominate the Flanaess, as is their destiny owing to the innate superiority.

Beliefs

  • The Suel race is inherently superior to all others, and the Suel are the natural rulers of the world
  • Evil is the only philosophy that will achieve our goals
  • Influence is preferable to control, control is preferable to force, force is preferable to failure

Goals

  • Protect the purity of the Suel race
  • Infiltrate the centers of power in the Flanaess
  • Establish a new order with the Suel people at its apex

Member Traits

Members of the Scarlet Brotherhood can be of any class, but must be of evil alignment. Most agents of the Scarlet Brotherhood will have been raised in the Tilvanot Peninsula itself and sent out into the world, but some few people of pure Suel blood are recruited from outside. All believe in the inherent superiority of the Suel race and its destiny to rule the world, although they are wise enough to hide that belief from outsiders, who might misinterpret it (or interfere with the Brotherhood's plan to see that destiny come to pass).

Ranks

  • Friend (rank 1) - faction insignia is a tattoo bearing the Scarlet Sign
  • Cousin (rank 2)
  • Nephew (rank 3)
  • Brother (rank 4)
  • Elder Brother (rank 5)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: Saga of Old City

(Caution: Spoilers)

At last I come to the series of novels and stories written by Gary Gygax, featuring his hero Gord. The first in the series is Saga of Old City (1985), which was released as part of the last gasp of products written by Gygax right before his ouster from TSR.

Saga of Old City charts the early life of Gord, a beggar, thief, acrobat, and adventurer from the slums of Greyhawk's Old City (hence the title). Interestingly, though, only the first part of the novel actually takes place in Old City, although there is a satisfying denouement that brings the hero back there.

Rather than presenting a single plot, the book is episodic, broken into several stories with connective tissue bridging them together:
  • Gord as a beggar-thief in Old City
  • Gord among the Rhennee
  • Gord in Stoink
  • Gord in Castle Blemu
  • The Battle of Woodford
  • The recovery of the relic from the dungeon in the Abbor Alz
This episodic nature really gives the book a feel like you're reading an adventure straight from Gygax's table. The writing is unmistakably Gygaxian, with its sometimes-stilted prose that uses obscure and archaic words that at times make you stop and work out the meaning from context, but I find it all the better for all that. The central characters are well-defined, and the secondary characters feel like NPC's; given enough detail that they are differentiated from one another with little trouble. Even no-name bandits feel different from one another.

There's also a short afterward, in which Gygax covers the game mechanics behind some of the characters and things in the book. So he explains Gord's stats and level in game terms, goes over some of the magic items, and gives a brief general overview of how he envisions the sort of campaigns shown in the book:
Events that occur as Gord travels across the lands around Greyhawk City, the Nyr Dyv, and elsewhere int he Flanaess ... are as they might happen to adventurers traveling the same places in my campaign. Encounters are not frequent in civilized places, for mankind has a way of ridding itself of unwanted monsters and bothersome pests of dangerous sort. The high road of adventure is an amalgam of medieval travel and confrontations with human-type enemies; occasional monsters to add spice are put in by the pinch rather than liberally sprinkled with unrealistic abandon.
The details about the World of Greyhawk contained in the book are vast. From NPC's to streets, obscure villages to the layout of cities, there is a wealth of detail herein that any DM interested in running Greyhawk should want to have at his fingertips. There is no particular date given (although it is stated that the events in the book take about eight years), but it is mentioned that Nerof Gasgol is mayor at the time of the war between the Thieves and the Beggars, and Arentol is guildmaster of thieves a couple of years after that, plus the Horned Society is still extant, which places it somewhere in the late 560's to early 580's. Given that 576-578 was the "default" time period when the book was written, it's not a stretch to place the book then.

On the whole, this is both an excellent book in its own right, as well as being enormously valuable as a source of Greyhawk trivia and detail. I rate it five wizards out of five.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Interview: Greyhawk Reborn's Dave Guerrieri

I'm on an interview roll, it seems. I've known about the Greyhawk Reborn project, which is an attempt to keep the old Living Greyhawk campaign alive with a new and continuing "living campaign", as it is active in my neck of the woods, and I've seen mentions of it at conventions and online. At this past Dexcon, I got to meet its founder and lead, Dave Guerrieri, and he graciously agreed to answer some questions about the project.

You can find Greyhawk Reborn online at their Yahoogroups email list and their Facebook page.

* * * * *

GG: What's your background with D&D, Greyhawk, and Living Campaigns in general?

DG: I started playing D&D in summer of 1980, when one of my friends started playing during his freshman year of college, and have been playing steadily ever since. We grabbed another friend, and then quickly found another group playing AD&D, and that was a great summer. We played 4-5 nights a week, from 7 pm or so until the wee hours of the morning. Great times with great people discovering a great game. We started in Greyhak, and I never really got into other worlds. I remember buying the Ruins of Myth Drannor box set when it came out, and thinking it was pretty cool, but then when I bought the Forgotten Realms box set, it wasn't Greyhawk cool. Greyhawk, to me, has always had the perfect formula. The kingdoms and areas have just enough detail to really have a great idea of the flavor and feel or the area, but I can still drop just about any adventure or concept into just about any area.

I started playing RPGA Living Greyhawk shortly after a home game broke up. One of the guys was playing in the LG campaign, and he ran an adventure for us in his  basement, and I was hooked, along with other of my long term gamers. We went to a convention shortly after, and found some other like-minded gamers. Next thing we knew, we had a gaming group called The Regulators! Eventually, we ran some conventions, and I became a Keoland Triad member in 2005, and by the end of the LG campaign in 2008, I had basically worn every Triad hat possible in the RPGA. I was also an admin for Cormyr in the Living Forgotten Realms campaign for a short time.

GG: Describe how Greyhawk Reborn works, for those who might not be familiar with Living Campaigns.

DG: Greyhawk Reborn is a new living-style campaign based in the legendary World of Greyhawk using the D&D 5E rules! We pick up 15 years after the end of the Living Greyhawk campaign, using those events as inspiration for GHR. We provide the opportunity to create and play a character in a type of extended home game within a shared world of story-telling. Your PCs can be played at any Greyhawk Reborn event, whether they are at game days, conventions or something else. You can bring a group to a convention and play together all weekend, or you can come in small groups or by yourself and play with different players at different tables. Your characters will level up and become more powerful in the campaign, and as they do so they will become more immersed in our Greyhawk Reborn world.

We have standardized and codified some rules for Greyhawk Reborn to ensure a consistency and structure within the campaign, as well as managing treasure distribution and ensuring a quality play experience for our players. We are currently using the latest version of the D&D Next playtest rules, though we will soon be migrating to the finalized version of 5E. We are different from other living-style campaigns in that our authors also act as the DMs for their adventures. We feel this provides the best possible play experiences for our players.

GG: What made you want to continue the RPGA Living Greyhawk campaign?

DG: I missed the gaming community that Living Greyhawk built. I used to travel quite a bit with The Regulators (our gaming group), and was fortunate enough to meet many wonderful people. LG gave people a reason to go to game days and conventions. When Living Forgotten Realms came out, there was no reason for players to go to conventions or game days to play. LFR could be run in your own basement. So lots of people started playing it like that, while others were less than enthusiastic about 4E D&D, and went to other games or stopped playing. So I wanted to create a reason for the gaming community to get together again, and become stronger. When gamers get together, for playing or any other reason, that can only be good for the gaming community, and the gaming industry.

GG: Describe what you feel are some of the pluses and minuses between living campaigns and home campaigns.

DG: Nothing beats a great home campaign, one with a long term commitment from DMs and players alike, with an organized and creative DM and players desiring to be a part of the story. Unfortunately, that happens rarely as life gets in the way. People move away, get married, have jobs, have kids, and that group that used to gather once a week religiously now is lucky to get together once a month. The living-style campaigns, such as Greyhawk Reborn, can make it much easier to play. You can show up when it is convenient for you, and you don't need to find other folks, the organizers do that work. It becomes a much easier way to play some D&D as life gets in the way. You can choose the commitment level that fits your current life situation.

The other wonderful benefit of a living-style campaign is the wide variety of gamers that you meet. You find role-players, roll-players, and everything in between. You sit at tables with all kinds of DMs and players. You meet some many great people, many of whom will become friends. By getting into the Living Greyhawk, I met so many great players, great DMs and great people. They made me re-evaluate my gaming, and I became a better player, a better DM, and most importantly, a better person. That is the biggest plus I've found.

I guess about the only minus I can find is the amount of work we are putting into it, but we love what we are doing.

GG: Why Keoland?

DG: Very simple reasons, it was my home region in the Living Greyhawk campaign, and the region in which I spent 3+ years as a Triad member. It is most familiar to me, and the area in which I have the most knowledge and background.

GG: What sort of relationship, if any, does your organization have with Wizards of the Coast?

DG: None, really. They are aware of what we are doing. I felt it proper and professional to communicate our intentions to their organized play manager, especially as we were using the D&D Next playtest rules, which required an agreement with WotC. With the DMs writing and running their own adventures, we are not violating any intellectual property of WotC, simply running the game the way it is meant to be played. The DM creates their stories and adventures, and then runs them for the players. The GHR campaign staff simply manages and organizes the campaign, so that there is game balance, and a fairness and consistency to the campaign. If we continue to grow and expand, who knows what the future can hold for GHR.

GG: Where do you see Greyhawk Reborn in ten years?

DG: I'd love to see Greyhawk Reborn as a thriving, exciting living campaign option for players and authors alike. I'd love to see it become a viable play opportunity to stand alongside other living-style campaigns of the future. Our plan is to slowly spiderweb outward, expanding into new areas. We'd love to find a handful of creative people in an area and work with them to develop an area of Greyhawk, creating exciting and integrated stories and plots that fit within the world of GHR, creating adventures and other play opportunities at conventions and game days for gamers in their local areas. I'd love to see this spiderweb network continue to spread. I really think the more localized, grass roots campaign of Greyhawk Reborn can really provide much better play opportunities for our gamers than a "top down" management style.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Thor and Cap: Big Changes? Big Deal

Beta Ray Bill as Thor
There's of course been a ton of churn in the last week or so about Marvel's announcements that their comic book versions of Thor and Captain America are going to be changing, specifically being replaced with a woman and a black man, respectively.

A lot of people are either deeply upset by these changes, or are hailing them as some progressive victory for diversity, or whatever. But honestly I don't see what the big deal is; these characters have been "played" by different people for years. The latest changes aren't anything special, and they are most certainly not the last changes these characters will see.

For instance, let's take Thor. He started off as the alter ego of Dr. Donald Blake in the 1960's. He's also been human Red Norvell, korbinite (which an alien race) Beta Ray Bill (pictured above right), human Eric Masterson, and 25th century human Dargo Ktor. Hell, even Captain America has hefted meow-meow Mjolnir.

Jane Foster as Thordis
(From 1978 or so)
For that matter, we've already seen a female Thor, and more than once!

In What if? (vol. 1, #10), we had the story "What if Jane Foster had found the hammer of Thor?" (she is called Thordis). And again, this time in What if? (vol. 2 #66), the mutant Rogue absorbed Thor's powers and became the goddess of thunder.

So Thor has already been an alien, and two different women, not to mention four different men. Forgive me if I'm neither up in arms nor excited about yet another change. It's just par for the course.

Although I should point out that I am on record as saying that I would love to see Thor 3 be the Ballad of Beta Ray Bill, acting as a bridge between the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Just sayin'.

Captain America has similarly seen several different hefting the stars-and-stripes shield. He was originally Steve Rogers, of course, but when Rogers went missing, he was replaced by the Spirit of '76, then the Patriot (real name Jeff Mace), then William Burnside in the 1950's fighting communism, then the real Steve Rogers was recovered from his icy sleep, then Roscoe Simons took his turn when Steve Rogers became the hero Nomad following Watergate, then Rogers became Captain America again, then John Walker, then Rogers again, who eventually gets shot in the Civil War and replaced by Bucky Barnes, the former Winter Soldier who was his sidekick way back in World War 2, but when Steve Rogers is brought back to life, he becomes Captain America again. That's eleven change-overs by my count, and I'm sure I missed a few. *whew!*

Truth: Red, White, and
Black, #5 (2003)
Oh, and guess what? We've already seen a black man with the super-soldier serum wearing Cap's costume during World War 2. I give you Isaiah Bradley (although in fairness he wasn't officially called Captain America, but he's still there with the costume and the super-strength, fighting Nazis, and that's good enough for me).

So once again I fail to see why swapping out Steve Rogers for someone else as Captain America (especially someone who has already been established for decades as a superhero in his own right) is at all something to either cheer or be angry about. They've been doing it for years, and even the new Cap being black isn't quite the novelty some people are making it out to be.

Plus, if history is any guide, neither of these changes are going to stay in place for very long, anyway. Maybe just long enough to get people used to the people behind the masks changing, against the time when the actors playing these characters in the MCU need to change...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Interview: "The Great Kingdom" Filmmakers

I had the opportunity to ask some questions of Andrew Pascal and Chris Haifley, the filmmakers behind the documentary The Great Kingdom, which is being Kickstarted right now, ending this Sunday. As of this writing, they're less than $10,000 away from their goal. They've reached their goal!

* * * * *

GG: Let's get the 900 pound gorilla out of the way first. What were some of the "creative differences" that led you to break off from the other D&D documentary, "D&D: A Documentary"?

AP: We unfortunately can't say too much on the particulars of the separation due to the current legal action against us. What we can tell you is that there were personality and creative differences, but our obligations to our Kickstarter backers remained paramount. That, coupled with the idea to explore the amazing story of Gary and Dave even further was the impetus to start a new project from scratch. No money or footage from the previous project has been or will ever be used for THE GREAT KINGDOM.

GG: Will your documentary have a different emphasis than "D&D: A Documentary"? Why should people who backed that Kickstarter back yours as well?

AP: We can't speak for the other documentary as we don't know what the film will ultimately be about. What we can say is that the focus for THE GREAT KINGDOM is on the creators of the game. Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and this group of midwest gamers were content playing and creating games for themselves. Then this amazing idea for a game falls on their laps and it changes their lives in very dramatic ways. That's a great story. We certainly would appreciate the support of the previous Kickstarter backers. We are offering the previous backers a free download of THE GREAT KINGDOM when it's finished. This is our way of thanking our original supporters.

CH: We knew the history of the game was entirely too big to fit into a two hour movie.  We decided to focus on the people who were there when Dungeons & Dragons was created, which lead to the formation of TSR and how both ventures dramatically changed the lives of so many people.  There are personal stories of heartbreak, death and triumph.  We narrowed the scope so we could tell the story we wanted to tell.

GG: Do you think the ongoing lawsuit could have an impact on your ability to get your documentary into the hands of the backers?

AP:  We don't know what the future holds, but we are confident of an ultimate vindication and victory. Our job right now is to finish the film regardless of what may be happening behind the scenes. When we succeed with our current Kickstarter, the clock will continue to tick for the completion of our film which should be spring of 2015.

CH:  The lawsuit hasn't stopped us from production.  Again, thanks to James and Andrew, they keep pushing forward.

GG: Can you give a little more in-depth background on your history as gamers? Any favorite memories to share?

AP: I started playing in the early 80's. Like any respectable nerd back then who was into Star Wars and Monty Python, D&D was my bread and butter. Today, I DM a gaming group that includes my wife, that is in the middle of an almost 4 year campaign. We play a loose 2nd Edition. My wife pushes the envelope on the term "loose".

CH:  Dungeons & Dragons was first introduced to me in a psychologist's office.  I was eleven years old and had been suffering anxiety and panic attacks.  As with most therapists they want to get to know you, figure out where the anxiety is originating from.  I didn't talk so much about anxiety but about Ray Harryhausen monsters, Godzilla, and fairy tale creatures.  That's all I wanted to talk about, certainly not what was giving me anxiety.  About two months into the therapy, my therapist gave me a copy of The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual.  That was the best possible treatment for me.  I buried myself in all things D&D and never looked back.  A few weeks later I stopped therapy.  D&D gave me another focus and in some respects saved my life.

GG: Your trailer caught the attention and imagination of a lot of people, especially because of your choice of background music. Do you see a connection between heavy metal and D&D?

CH: Thank you.  Our trailer was put together by our very talented editor, Travis Graalman.  He plays D&D, loves the world and had a good sense of what music was needed to elicit emotion.  He knocked it out of the park.  Digging into the history and talking to early gamers, I never got a sense that music was important to gameplay.  I think now, and when I started playing in the 80's, music was the first thing everyone agreed upon before starting a game.  We did listen to the Heavy Metal Soundtrack and Blue Oyster Cult when we played but I'm not sure if D&D is music genre specific.  I'm sure a lot of players would disagree with me.

GG: Can you name some of the luminaries from the early days of the hobby that are involved in your project?

AP: Sure: Dave Megarry, Dave Wesely, Rob Kuntz, Terry Kuntz, Ernie Gygax, Bill Hoyt, Bill Hoyer, Jim Ward, Mike Carr, just to name a few. They were there. They hung out with Gary and Dave...they are the keepers of the torch. They helped us fill in where Gary and Dave couldn't.

GG: From a film making perspective, what is the greatest challenge you've encountered making this documentary?

AP: Money. Always money. We've learned to squeeze 15 cents out of a dime, but we still have to find that dime. Raising money is always the challenge. But I'm a hammer, so all I see are nails. As a producer, all I see is money. But we've been very fortunate and very lucky to have amazing help from amazing people to get this documentary made. The favors they have given us would cost us ten times what anybody else would pay. A huge thank you to Keslow Camera for their unbelievable and continued support. THE GREAT KINGDOM is visually dynamic with the help of Keslow Camera.

CH:  Making movies is a bitch.  You really have to love doing it because it's never easy. The greatest challenge for me is making sure we finish our day.  So many things can go wrong on any given day of production.  Because our film's budget isn't as big as most, we're wearing several hats.  It's easy for the 'little things' to slip through the cracks. Thankfully, I have James and Andrew there, making sure I don't miss anything.

AP (Addendum): Without our fearless leader, Chris, we would be lost.

GG: To what extent, if any, have you relied on written sources such as Jon Peterson's "Playing at the World" or Kent David Kelly's "Hawk and Moor" to guide your research?

AP: We have three experts helping us out. You mentioned Jon Peterson. He and his book have been a valuable source of information for us. This truly would not have been possible without his help. We also have Paul Stormberg, who is also an unbelievable source of information on the personal lives of the creators. He has devoted so much to this game and knows so much about their lives as he's spoken to all of them in depth. Plus, he's even let us touch the DM Guide original painting by David Sutherland he has in his basement. The other expert is David Ewalt who authored "Of Dice and Men", another great book on the history of the game. We stand on their shoulders, for sure.

GG: Have your researches turned up any particular heroes or villains in the story of D&D's early history?

AP: Plenty, but we'd like to leave that for the film.

CH:  We have turned up heroes and villains.  The great thing about this story is that the roles of hero and villain are not so cut-and-dry.  You may think you know the hero or the villain until the story unfolds and you may change your mind.  We want the audience to decide who those archetypes belong to.