Friday, October 29, 2010

So what you gonna be for Halloween?

In my earliest memory of a costume, I was probably around 7 or 8. My parents had only been in the country around 10 years, and dad was still working as a house painter. So my first costume was…a house painter. Easy enough, my dad is not a tall guy and by 8 I was already closing in on his height. I imagine I would have preferred to have been Gigantor or Kimba the White Lion or something like that, but even a crappy mask and a bit of fabric was beyond the reach of my fairly broke immigrant parents at the time. But one thing I loved: back then in the early 70’s you got lots of candy. Every house was giving it out. It was a good time to grow up by the 80’s, because by then it seemed like only one or two houses on a block were giving out treats.

By the time the folks had money, I was a teen and responsible for my own costumes. For a lot of my mid to late teens I worked up some half-assed outfits based on this or that D&D character, especially my first character, a ranger name Arcturus Grimm. I even remember running a couple of games on Halloweens, ones where we all made ourselves up like our characters. At around 17, my girlfriend at the time did herself up as her drow MU, with black skin and white hair and all. She was tall and thin with somewhat Mediterranean features , and it just looked great. After gaming a couple of hours, we all went to Westwood Village near UCLA to hang out and go to a screening of The Road Warrior. I ran into some girls from work ( a Walden Books in Santa Monica) at that theater, and they were blown away by my black-skinned, ivory-haired sweetie.

But by 18 I was no longer really interested in D&D dress-up. I had gone with friends to a convention dressed like the Clockwork Orange Droogies, and we were so popular there I liked to wear that outfit whenever I could. It always tripped people out (by the early 90’s droog costumes had been done to death). I went with some other friends in recent years, around 2002, to a Loscon in Los Angeles, and not only where three of us Droogs, but the girl with us got a red jump suit and worked it as the gang rape victim from the home invasion in Clockwork Orange (but in this incarnation she liked it). Clever idea, but it seemed to freak people out more than trip them out.

Back in my early 20’s I started working at a couple of Renaissance Faires during the year, and all that weekend dress-up kind of satisfied my desire to be in costume. For the longest time, a couple of decades in fact, I rarely went in costume to parties. When I did, it was usually as easy a costume to put together as possible. But in recent years I have gotten an interest in doing decent costumes, especially at Fools Guild parties. FG is an organization of Hollywood people, ex- Ren Faire folk, costumers, and general nutsos in Southern California. Every year they elect a King or Queen out of their ranks, and this regent organizes several parties a year for The Guild. My old friend and current player Terry is heavily involved in decorating these shindigs (I’m sure she is on the fast track for Queen status one year soon), usually held at rented venues in Glendale or Pasadena. As you can guess, there are some damn great costumes at these parties. Last year for Halloween I went to a FG party as a Satanic Bagpiper. Basically just my kilt with a black shirt, red tie, and red devil horns. Easy enough. And for their big April Fools party this year I did a pretty decent Hunter Thompson. At 6’2” and a bit under 300 lbs, I for sure don’t have Dr. Thompson’s body type, but people still knew who I was (although one drunk dude thought I was Jackie Gleason from some old go-go film from the 70’s called “Skidoo”).

For this weekend’s parties, I’m going as a Tap Out Ultimate Fighter (Tap Out boxing trunks and t-shirt, hand wraps and Everlast gloves, a black knit cap with a crucifix on it, fake arm tattoo sleeve, etc), and my date is going to be a ring card hoochie girl for me. As I already have some boxing gear and the Tap Out shirt, I really don’t need to buy anything, except maybe black grease to blacken an eye. Easy peasy.

I actually originally wanted to be Braveheart, but I could not find a wig that I was satisfied with. You see, this party is going to have a heroes and villains theme, and I thought I could be both. Am I Scottish hero William Wallace, or am I evil, sugar-tit loving alcoholic racist and sexist pig Mel Gibson dressed up like Braveheart? Great concept, but the damn wigs killed it. My date for Saturday is an actress who’s agent is throwing a client party at the Hard Rock in Hollywood Sunday night, so if I mind my P’s and Q’s maybe I’ll get to go to that to, and maybe bite the bullet and be Braveheart there if I feel like a different costume in order.

So, what you gonna be for Halloween, and if not you what are the kiddies going as this year? What are the hot costumes for adults and kiddies? Chilean Miners? California candidate Jerry Brown? Prez Obama? The blue dog people from Avatar?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Season of the Witch


Every October various cable channels march out old movie horror chestnuts for weeks leading up to Halloween. Some great, some good, and some crap. Last night I was watching a particular piece of crap that I seem to watch at least some of every year – Halloween 3: Season of the Witch. The thing is, some of the worst horror movie nonsense can be fascinating, and so it is with this sans Michael Myers addition to the Halloween movie franchise.

This 1982 film was an attempt to take the series away from Mike Myers and his Shatner mask, and create yearly anthologies of films about Halloween. Of course, John Carpenter would bring Myers back for the next movie, but for this one we would be exposed to Celtic mysticism, skull-crushing androids, head-melting masks, and dingy California Coast motels full of sleazy old- man-on-hot-young-chick sex.

It seems that there are strange doings at the Silver Shamrock novelty factory in Santa Mira California (a fictional town created in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which this film is in part an homage to), a town founded by Irish immigrants who apparently schlepped a large chunk of Stonehenge to America from the Islands. A local doctor (played by mustachioed John Carpenter workhorse Tom Atkins) and the brash and sexy daughter of a murdered man (played by the very 80’s looking Stacey Nelkin, who sort of looks like a cross between Elizabeth Berkley from Showgirls and the chick from Flashdance – you can see her in the pic above having a look at her own beautiful ass) investigate the evil presence in between bouts of nauseating old/young sex at the local flea trap.

One of their nemesis in the film are the super-strong androids in business suits (predating the agents of The Matrix by decades) who always seem to be around and ready to squash a dude’s melon in their gloved hands. When some of them are busted up there for sure seems to be robot-type parts in them, but the head bad guy, a wanna be modern Samhain loving Druid played by Dan O'Herlihy, mentions at one point that one of the suit dudes was created in 17th century Germany. Huh. This would lead me to believe that they are more like Homunculus than android, but what the heck to I know. Just another head scratching mystery in this film.

O’Herlihy plans to celebrate Halloween in a unique fashion. His popular masks have a computer chip fitted with a chunk of Stonehenge, and when a special (and annoying) musical commercial is played, the mask-wearers head turns to goo, and snakes, roaches, and other vermin come pouring out to attack any others who might be around. What the hell that has to do with druids, Samhain, Stonehenge, or anything else is entirely left up in the air. You want answers mister? Tough titties (Stacey Nelkin’s titties, which you get a decent look at in unedited versions of the film).

It is a weirdo premise, and it is exactly that premise that keeps me coming back year after year. This cheaply made film with an unattractive cast (except for Nelkin, who despite having a creepy look in her eyes is quite fetching. But once you see Atkin’s hairy mitts all over her in bed, you can never look at her the same) is just gonzo with all its bizarre mysteries. The idea comes from the original writer of the film, who actually has a pretty good pedigree. It’s Nigel Kneale, creator of Britain’s first science fiction scientist hero Doctor Quartermass (although his script here was dislike by Dino De Laurentiis, who didn’t think it was gory enough, so there were some rewrites and eventually Nigel had his name removed from the film).

The following is according to Wikipedia:

Historian Nicholas Rogers notes that Halloween III is "the only film in the [Halloween] cycle that explores the sacrificial aspects of Halloween in a sustained manner."[12] Film critics like Jim Harper, however, called Wallace's plot "deeply flawed." Harper argues, "Any plot dependent on stealing a chunk of Stonehenge and shipping it secretly across the Atlantic is going to be shaky from the start." He noted, "there are four time zones across the United States, so the western seaboard has four hours to get the fatal curse-inducing advertisement off the air. Not a great plan."[4] Harper was not the only critic unimpressed by the plot. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "What's [Cochran's] plan? Kill the kids and replace them with robots? Why?"

Why indeed Roger, why indeed.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Comic Dork Monday: Asbestos Man

The Human Torch. A high-powered superhero who is capable of generating enough heat to wipe out a major metropolitan city, once met his match in a man in a suit made of the infamous naturally occurring substance the Greeks named “Asbestos.”

Actually, long before Johnny Storm met his match at the gloved hands of this 1960’s “mort,” the World War 2 Human Torch and his buddy Toro tangled with the first Asbestos-based villain, The Asbestos Lady. This angry red-head was pissed because her criminal brother who had been captured by the Torch got hanged. Yes kiddies, 70 years ago they put your head in a noose and dropped you off a plank for being naughty. Now you just get rehab.

But for true modern Asbestos villainy, you just cannot beat the modern Torch’s 1960’s nemesis, The Asbestos Man. Looking a lot less sexy in an asbestos suit than Asbestos Lady, AM took his fireproof suit, shield, and asbestos netting and beat the Torch hands down. Just once, though. See, Torchy was still in his early stages of herodom, and the Fantastic Four had yet to have tons of world-spanning adventures where they truly came into their own in respect to high level superpowers. Eventually, Torch figured out that all he needed to do was use his flames to take the oxygen out of the air around Asbesty, and you had one huffing and puffing scientist bad guy. That’s it for you, Asbest-hole. Probably in more ways than one.

You see, asbestos has been around for thousands of years. The Greeks had it, and figured out for themselves that the stuff was dangerous, as witnessed by countless slaves working in construction coming down with severe lung problems. Marco Polo marveled at the stuff, witnessing Persians cleaning carpets of asbestos by throwing them onto fires.

The people in charge, in ancient days and in America, were long aware of the dangers of this substance. But it wasn’t until around 1970 that the public was made aware of what the government was for the most part covering up. This shit can jack you up in ways Joe Camel could only dream of.

After their earliest appearance, both Asbestos Man and Asbestos Lady were never heard from again, and their fates are unknown. But we know, don’t we? These poor, low level villain numbnuts sealed their fates by doing what many a dead villain has; dabbling in things they didn’t really understand.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Player drops the DM Bomb

Old friend and current player Terry dropped by on Monday night this week to play video games as she often does (Champions of Norrath, Baldur’s Gate, etc.) when she has a dance practice on the West Side.

Handed her a Fat Tire Ale, we horked a shot of Tequila, and before we got to the game she talked about the game regular player Big Ben ran last week that I missed. I had a hell of a busy week preparing for the final blowout weekend of the Northern Ren Faire, and had also just bought a new car (a nifty black Jeep Compass), so I was just feeling a little too stressed to run one of the last games of my two year Night Below campaign. But hey, I wanted an alternate D&D game going besides my own for just such an emergency. That way, I don’t have to feel like I HAVE to provide a game if I am not feeling up to it.

Anyway, out of the blue Terry mentioned that she would not mind doing a little DM’ing. I was not too surprised; early this year while liquored up in the Mirage Casino suite while we were listening to tunes and taking a break from the slots, I brought up the idea that she might try it again. You see, in a way I feel I owe her that.

Around 1993 or so Terry declared she wanted to run some D&D. I had three major campaigns going on at the time with the group; AD&D 1st ed, Call of Cthulhu, and Champions. So we had plenty to do, and by that point in life I had already decided that I wasn’t cut out for the player experience. My joy came out of providing a setting and some challenges and watching the proceedings bloom like a flower. So there were in fact good reasons to not have yet another game by somebody else going on. But on the other side of the coin we did manage to find time to play long sessions of Talisman at the time, so I guess another D&D campaign was not out of the question. So it was like “sure Terry, go for it.”

Terry bought some books, and of course by that time it was 2nd edition they were selling. That was the first thing that got my goat. I would be playing the new version of D&D. Another thing that I was worried about was that despite her having a lot of acting and performing experience I wasn’t sure Terry was aggressive enough to run D&D. OK, it was one of my misconceptions of the time (remember, I was still in my dumb ass 20’s then) that somebody had to be very outgoing and outspoken as I was to run decent games. Terry is often sort of reserved. Don’t get me wrong, she can be a firecracker. Get her mad and you are getting yelled at. And when we are fighting a boss in Baldur’s Gate and she keeps getting killed, her shouts of frustration have me worried the neighbors will think I am killing a hooker in the workshop or something (that’s more of a Saturday night thing).

But in retrospect Terry set-up a decent setting with a fairly clever campaign in mind (adventurer’s coming to a new frontier continent with no civilizations known of), and there was plenty of room for role play among the characters. I came up with a character I loved, Micah, a big tanned sun-worshipping barbarian from some tropical island local (I used the great Conan figure available at the time).

We had a few games over time, but two things frustrated me. One, Terry didn’t seem to have studied the rules very well (something that I could be called guilty on a time or two in my Gm’ing career), and because they were different enough from AD&D I could not be that much of a help (plus I had house ruled so many things away in my game I wasn’t sure I even knew 1st ed. that well anymore). When Terry had to look something up during play, it was often a 20 minute deal. I know, I counted. Later I would realize that the skill of just winging it over spending nose-time in the books is something that you eventually learn as a DM, but Terry didn’t have that yet. So at some point we were in one game where our travelling overland to get to some location spilled over from the previous game. That game had ended with us fighting wolves. Then this game started with us fighting…wolves. Then a few hours into this game we were still travelling and fighting…wolves.

So I made pleas to Terry to just ignore the fucking wandering monster tables and either give us something different to fight, or just get us to the damn location. But I was unheeded. She was determined to go by the book. So some time in the 5th or 6th hour of the game, and maybe 12 beers in, I sort of blew my top. Fellow player Planet Janet and I had already talked a bit on the side about how the games were going, and she was frustrated too (Terry had her boyfriend playing the games, but he wasn’t really into games anyway so he was of the opinion of just being supportive of Terry’s efforts).

But when it came to the zero hour, I was alone in my confrontation, but I felt an intervention was necessary. We were putting hours into this thing every few weeks, and she was taking zero player input (another skill that has to be developed) about how it could be more fun for us. At that time, these were cardinal sins to me. Plus I was having a very broke year then, and I didn’t have wheels for a few months. I was taking three buses over two hours + to get to The Hollywood Bowl area from Venice, and for that you want to be rewarded with some stellar gameplay, no?

So I just told Terry the games were sucking big donkey dick (paraphrasing), it wasn’t fun, and that I was done with it. In a nutshell, that was it. Terry didn’t like it, she dropped out of my games altogether, and we didn’t even talk for almost three years until the mid-90’s when I had a big group in full swing and asked her to come play again. We stayed friends ever since.

But now you see why I maybe owe Terry another shot. She has supported my return to gaming after several year hiatus by being an important part of this group, and that is another reason to let her have a go. But of course, I would want there to be a caveat that she would be more open to player input on the games. Sure, I don’t always have that kind of sympathy for my players, but I have around 35 years of experience, and half my players are shameless power gamers (compared to Terry anyway, who is about as low maintenance a player as you could ask for), so I try not to cut too much slack or they’d eat me alive.

So sure, what the hell. Let’s have Big Ben continue to do his alternate 1st edition a bit, and maybe into next year before too long we’ll let Terry have a go. And of course it will be 2nd edition. But that is OK, I kind of look forward to posting about playing another edition (and one that isn’t 3rd or 4th). This will free me up to do Star Wars KOTOR, Champions, and Call of Cthulhu that I am chomping at the bit to do. But the group was started to do D&D, and we need that going on too. I have to admit, after a two year campaign I’m ready to rest up on the D&D DM’ing a bit.

So sure Terry, you have my vote. If the other guys are up for it, then go for it. Just, uh, go easy on the wolves, eh?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Powerful Little Women

Normal size women who display super strength are nothing new. Even before Elly May Clampett and Granny were seen picking up fallen trees and flinging full grown men around the room, the voluptuous chicks of L’il Abner were running men down, throwing them over their shoulders, and schlepping them off to the Sadie Hawkins dance. In the case of Elly May and Abner’s girls, it was that hard livin’ mountain life that instilled tensile, long muscled strength. Of course for Granny it was her moonshine (a potion which also appeared to give her super speed), also known as “rumatiz medicine.”

I was always especially fascinated by women who were much stronger than they look. Actually, anyone who is way stronger than they look is pretty interesting. I think it started with Marvel Comics for me, where a little skinny dude like Spider-Man could bend girders and punch through brick walls. Even Daredevil, who could (according to the Guide to the Marvel Universe) bench press the same weight as a gold medal winning Olympic weight lifter, was fairly normal of build. And the super strength of werewolves, vampires, and other creatures of more or less average build who could lift grown men over their heads with one hand were always cool.

I think it is that comic book background that has me giving people a break as far as how muscular they look with their strong characters in my AD&D or Champions games. Very often you get somebody who has a 16 or higher strength character, but they envision that PC as being fairly normal of build, sometimes even thin. Sure, even in real life you get wiry dudes who seem to be able to perform great feats of strength.

One of my older brother’s friends when I was a kid was this fairly short and not especially muscled dude, and I remember him getting in a fight and literally picking up a guy who was bigger than him over his head and throwing him into a wall. From what I was told that was not unusual for him. I heard stories about him getting in bar fights, where he would slam a guy onto the bar and then slide him across it face first like in a saloon from a cowboy movie. Now, my big bro is a 6’5” former football player, and not only have I seen him do things like that in the distant past, he looks like he could. At 6’2” and only having bench pressed a max of 275 in high school football (probably the pinnacle of my pure strength), I might have been able to lift a man over my head. I never tried though, much preferring to go for the immediate take down on any past opponents over pluck n’ throw. The point is in our cases we looked like the strength we had. Big dudes doing big things.

But it does seem to take a little suspension of disbelief when there is a female character with a 17 or higher strength, and she doesn’t look like one of those beastie chicks doing the caber toss down at the highland games. For example, my player Terry has a female fighter named Helena who she started with a 17 strength. Far from looking like a beast, Helena is around 5’7” and although maybe a little lean and hard-bodied she just does not appear to have that kind of strength. Or does she? She is a broadsword and shield fighter, so you can imagine her developing decent upper body strength; muscle long on the bone.

I don’t really oppose that, and I let characters look like whatever the player wants them too. Sure, it gets a little nutty when somebody with an 18/50 strength wants to look like Kate Moss or whatever, but it is a fantasy game after all. A woman can be as strong as an ox, and not look like one if that is the player’s preference.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Call of Cthulhu Friday: Mythos Card Game

In the early 90’s I decided I wanted to do some Call of Cthulhu with my regular D&D group. It had been a few years, and I was just chomping at the bit to do a new campaign. But most of my regular players, including my two long-time female players Terry and Planet Janet, did not have much interest. Pretty much none of my players at the time were even aware of the great works of Mr. Lovecraft.

But like other genres I would introduce to this group (the main other one being Champions), it only took one game to win them over. Both Terry and Janet came up with great characters, and often when we had a D&D session planned they would request I make it CoC instead. I remember one great game where only the three girls in my group showed up, so I just let them wander the map of Arkham, poking their heads into antique shops and bookstores, shopping at various clothing boutiques, and having lunch in a diner, all the while being stalked by agents of the evil they were then facing.

When I discovered the Mythos Card game and began collecting them, Terry and Janet got on that boat as well. Soon we all had enough cards for various theme decks, and for a couple of years we spent many a Saturday or Sunday afternoon doing tequila shots and playing session after session. We seemed obsessed with the game at one point (although I think it was only I who managed an almost complete set of all the releases).

In Mythos, you selected one of various Lovecraftian heroes, such as professors, students, journalists, and doctors to be your character de jour (one of my faves was The Pragmatic Hobo). The deck consisted of location cards, event cards, phobia cards, and monsters. In a nutshell, you would place various location cards to indicate your current spot (or that you were travelling there or leaving there), and use its resources to be able to lay out artifact and tome cards, allies, and use the gate at that location (if it had one) to summon monsters to your “threat” that would attack another player at the end of a full round of playing. Both damage and sanity losses were what could take you out of the game. Ultimately, you had a variety of “story cards” that you held on to, because there were various conditions you had to fulfill in order to get the points off that adventure. Get enough points, and you won. Or you could just say “screw the story” and try to take out the other characters exclusively with your threats and phobias. Sanitarium locations existed as places you could go rest and recover some sanity. Appropriately for a Lovecraft themed game, some asylums had a risk of monster attack or some kind of botched medical procedure.

According to Wikipedia, In 1999 Pyramid magazine named Mythos as one of The Millennium's Best Card Games.[3] Editor Scott Haring said "Mythos was a very deserving game, with great art and gameplay that involved more than just monsters fighting each other."

In the end our sessions sort of petered out as we did other things, such as focus more on actual rpg games rather than a card game. I actually think Planet Janet stopped playing because I kicked her ass so thoroughly in almost every game. She claimed it was because I had more cards than her, but that wasn’t really the case. I was damn good at the game. Terry was a good player, but she just made her decks too big, restricting access of cards she really needed to get to in order to fulfill her stories.

Last year Terry came over to play Mythos a couple of times, but then she got hooked on my Champions of Norrath and Baldur’s Gates Playstation games, and ended up preferring those to anything else we might do whenever she stopped by.

But I have fond memories of this card game, in a way I don’t really for Magic the Gathering, which I think I have outgrown. I’ll always be up for more Mythos down the line. Do you have a deck?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Charisma & The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

She is a loner. Aloof at all times, and surly to everybody, she downplays her looks by wearing black make-up and rocking a variety of piercings. The large dragon tattoo on her back is grotesque, appearing to literally be bursting free from her body. None of it is appealing to anyone but the most die hard goth/emo puke. Most normal people on the street who have more than a passing encounter with her find her repellant. Yet after you see this girl in action, getting a glimpse into her private life, you find her fascinating and you cannot look away. Inner beauty reveals itself in the form of steel-trap intelligence, physical pound for pound power, and certain invincibility.

Lisbeth is the titular character in the amazing Swedish crime thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In the film, this young woman, who already comes to us with half a dozen lifetimes of bad baggage, gets involved in one horrifying situation of another, whether in her own private life or in that of the famous journalist she is “cyberstalking” for the high end private investigation firm she freelances for. In a business monotone Lisbeth talks to a room of suit and tie professionals; fully out of place and almost bizarre in her macabre fashion statements. But the men in the room know her work, and have nothing but respect for her amazing computer research talents. These older, experienced private investigators look to her for the deep information that they cannot dig up on the streets. Lisbeth can find out anything about anybody.

Out in the urban jungle, Lisbeth is swift and canny, escaping one deadly situation after another, whether it be drunk punks in the metro looking to humiliate her for her appearance, brutal state imposed mentors who look to abuse her for sick pleasure, or even serial killers, Lisbeth comes out of each and every situation she enters on top. In the rare times she does not, she survives to return to exact brutal vengeance on any man who looks to harm her or the few people she is loyal too.

This weekend I saw the sequel to that great movie, The Girl Who Played with Fire, at an Academy of Science Fiction screening in West LA. Almost as great as the first, it got even deeper into the character of Lisbeth and her private world of violence and vengeance.

And it had me thinking about Charisma, in game terms, like it did when I watched the first film in the trilogy. This repellant and generally unattractive girl, so unlikeable on first meeting, actually turns out to have an almost irresistible, edgy charm. You only have to get a glimpse of her life to find yourself rooting for her in all of her misadventures. Those who see the true Lisbeth see an amazing and powerful charisma.

There are so many examples of repugnant individuals real and imagined who have big charisma, from Hitler to Hannibal Lector, who somehow have a strange magnetism. So many factors are involved. I think we have all hated somebody not knowing them at all, but after some acquaintance we change our minds completely about them.

Out of all statistics in a game like, say, D&D, I think charisma is the most difficult to apply in any kind of realistic manner. Even the somewhat abstract concept of Wisdom is easier to figure out in a real life way. In D&D, charisma helps you with how many henchfolk you can have, and give you a base reaction in encounters where it is appropriate. But let’s face it, that is more of a cartoony “winning smile” charisma. Tony Curtis in The Great Race flashing those white, gleaming choppers so charismatically that thrown pies won’t even dare sully him.

But how to make charisma more like it is in the real world? I’m guessing for a game like D&D it is just too much trouble. You’d have to take in both the persons speaking manner, their body language, looks, and actions. Plus you would have to look at any number of factors involved in the person we need a charisma related action from.

What can you do? I guess we’ll just have to keep charisma simple until a renowned gamer psychologist comes forward to put a better spin on it. Any out there?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Earthlings in your Fantasy Soup

I started thinking on this after reading a recent Grognardia post.

People from Earth ending up in fantasy worlds has an ancient legacy. “The Blazing World” of the late Renaissance, regarded as the first true fantasy world/science fantasy story, featured an Earthling stumbling into a strange world of humanoid animals. And Earthlings, even lepers and dumbass English kids who get locked in wardrobe cabinets, have been going to fantasy land ever since.

So how do I feel about a connection between my fantasy world and Earth? Well, over the decades I have been of differing minds on the matter. I still use the same game world I came up with as a kid, “Acheron.” But in those early days I was up for almost anything. Things like the multi-universal Arduin and The City State of The Invincible Overlord inspired me to do all sorts of wacky things with my world.

In those few short formative years I had gods from Earth myth as the gods of clerics; Thor, Odin, Zeus, etc, just like The City State did. It wasn’t until my mid teens when I started coming up with gods for my world from whole cloth, or expanding upon gods my players created, that I started rethinking that. Eventually I would eliminate those Earth gods from my world and stick with the original ones, so in thinking upon those early days I cut my young self some slack. But into the adult years of gaming I only very rarely had any sort of Earth connection with Acheron. When I did, it was not to use any normal sort of Earth human or Earth setting. It was my futuristic Hero Systems/Champions setting that I used.

In the 80’s I had a brother of my major ranger NPC (my first true D&D character, actually, that I ended up using for my own world) get trapped in my Champions setting, and become a sort of rustic superhero in that. So clearly I had established a link between worlds. And once or twice I had dimension hopping characters from my Champions games spend brief times in Acheron when I felt it was appropriate and I wanted some fantasy elements (in one case, heroes chased down some dimension-bending super-hunters who were going to Acheron to kill unicorns and other cutesy creatures).

But just having some d-bag professor or leper or whatever show up to dick around in Acheron? Naw. It isn’t that interesting to me. Maybe because I found Thomas Covenant and Harold Shea to be total bores. It has to be something very appealing to make me break that line between worlds, and the typical “Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” type stuff seems pretty played out to me now. Just a busted, old concept.

These days, I just like to keep my fantasy world pure. I do, however, like chocolate in my peanut butter. That will never change.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Character betrays party: film at 11

We got to do our Night Below game two weeks in a row, which is a rare treat. Let’s just say that Andy promised to take the trash out and mow the lawn for the wife for the next 30 years so we could get that extra access to her workshop.

Anyway, this session would prove to be just as memorable as the last Deck of Many Things session.

Let’s talk about the character Lily for a second. When a couple of new players came along last year, both of their characters began in the hands of a fierce tribe of gnolls in the sub-surface caves above the deeper Underdark. First captives of surface world slavers looking to make a buck from the Illithids way down at The City of The Glass Pool, the gnolls came along and picked up a little something for dinner, slaying most of the slavers in combat, and taking the already bound captives to a larger cave to butcher and munch them. Seconds from becoming a nice meal as the gnoll chopped up one captive after another, Lily and the other new character Lumarin the lawful good Grey Elf MU, were saved and became a part of the overall quest against the COTGP and the Aboleth in the Sunless Sea.

Lily is a local of the frontier settlement Overtown above, and her upbringing was less than ideal. She was a child mostly of the streets, and at a young age learned both to steal and to sell herself. At some point Lily learned magic from a mage “john” (yeah, I am allowing human multi-classing in some cases), and hence began her adventuring career as a Thief/MU. In her notes on her history, Lily described a gang leader boyfriend in town named Xavier who had tricked her into killing her own estranged father. When Lily was captured by the slavers, she was on the run from Xavier.

I should mention that Lily’s player, Paul, is a young guy very new to tabletop, and most of his experience is with video games. It was kind of refreshing to have this rpg near-virgin come to the table, as in stark contrast to most of my other players he comes with no baggage from previous years/decades of game play. Paul’s character actions, which might be pretty munchinky from more experienced players, take on a sort of innocent quality. Pretty much Paul is just trying to run a character with a broken soul, and nothing he did with Lily comes from just being a prick or anything. That in itself is refreshing, no doubt.

Lily had proven herself mostly unworthy of trust by sneaking around stealing and hogging treasure while others fought the good fight in encounters. Krysantha the Drow was especially hard on her, and in at least one case Vaidno the half elf Bard kept Krys from letting loose with violence on Lily and her nihilistic attitude. Things had gotten bad enough that when Lily got wishes from the Deck of Many Things in the last game, she offered one to Krysantha if she would agree to leave Lily alone in her endeavors from now on.

OK, as for the current party in general, they had left the Jubilex Shrine slime caves and were well on their way further down. Beaming from their fabulous rewards from the Deck of Many Things, nothing impeded the party or broke their spirit. Several wandering Displacer Beasts were handily dispatched. Further down the road, a Purple Worm (fixed encounter in book 2 of NB) attacked, but they managed to defeat it in fairly quick time (only Vaidno took a hit from the tail, and making his save was one of at least three close calls he had this game. I took to calling him “Survaivno”).

But the next encounter proved to be a bitch for everybody, even me.

In book 2 after the purple worm area, there is a set encounter with a high level group of slavers. A 7th level fighter in plate, a 7th level female human MU, a 6th level human cleric, a 6/6 high elvish female figher/MU, and Prentyss, a 9th level thief (and “Frienemy” of Lily who vied for Xavier’s attention). All these NPC’s have magic items up the yin yang besides their own decent powers and abilities. Some time ago I decided I would include Lily’s old gang leader boyfriend Xavier (a fighter/thief 6/7) to round out this group. Tall, dark, and sadistic, I gave him (besides other things) a magical tattoo that could turn into a giant rattlesnake once a day that would help fight for him.

Of course, I based this all around Lily, having previously rounded out the NPC personalities in relation to having known Lily before, and I also had given Lily notes about them before this encounter (“in case she ever ran into her old gang again”). So yeah, this was all about a cool encounter with people from Lily’s troubled past. I rarely use high level groups of NPC’s in encounters these days, although I did that a lot In the past. I feel it is not just a great challenge to players, but it often comes off like a cool comic book hero/villain group encounter. With my comic book upbringing, this is a great thing and I just don’t do it enough anymore. Here I was going to make up for it in spades. A possible battle royal, and finally a real challenge for this party.

So down in the tunnels, the Xavier gang is heading towards the party. 9th level thief Prentyss, invisible, scouts the way up ahead, and comes across the party while they are encamped and preparing for a rest period. Prentyss recognized her old friend Lily, and listens to the heated discussion going on (as the party tends to have). After a few minutes Prentyss returns to Xavier to tell him about Lily and her new friends. Xavier assumes Lily has joined up with some other gang, and decides he can use her to make capturing the characters easier. Xavier sends his fighter and bodyguard Groznyi to the character party to ask Lily to go speak with Xavier while Groznyi stays with the party as a hostage. After some arguing, Lily is allowed to head down the tunnel alone.

At this point I need several minutes with Lily’s player Paul, so I throw everybody out and tell them it’ll be a bit. Almost all of them smoke something or another, so it’s “smoke ‘em if you got em’.”

Xavier is there waiting with his badass gang for Lily. Basically, he asks a bit about the party, then asks her to rejoin him and help him take the party alive for sale down at the City of the Glass Pool. Now, although Lily’s alignment is pretty much chaotic neutral, Paul told me early on that she has a tendency towards evil, but not fully. So when I designed this encounter for Lily I had no idea which way this character would lean. At least for now, she agrees to lull the party into a false sense of security and lead them past the Xavier gang.

Finally back at the camp, Lily tells the party that her old friends are willing to let them pass without a fuss. Krysantha, ever the angry paranoid, is unconvinced. The drow goes ahead and uses her detect lie on Lily, and proceeds to give her the third degree. As still invisible Prentyss is listening close by, she goes and tells Xavier that the plan is not working, and he and the gang move in for the attack.

All hell busts loose as 6 powerful player characters and 6 NPC’s lock it up. Well, 5 player characters, because Lily turns invisible and hides. She seems unsure of what to do. I will admit that at this point I figure Lily will help save the day, but it is not to be so. She sneaks up behind a badly wounded Vaidno (one of her main defenders in group arguments regarding her) and attempts a backstab.

This was a big “oh shit” moment for me. Paul likes the character, and you would imagine that if for nothing else he would help the party to still stay in the game. But no. Lily decides that the ultimate quest is doomed to fail and figures helping Xavier is the best way out of the horrors of the Night Below (or as I call it after this game, “The Hurt Locker”).

Anyway, Lily misses her backstab on Vaidno! The bard lucks out again, because Lily’s extra damage would possibly have killed him. Lily hits herself with Mirror Image as attacks begin to come her way.

Although the NPC high level cleric is quickly killed early on in the battle by Vaidno and his flashing blades, most fight to a pretty good standstill, great blows being given and received. The NPC party has a high level MU and a mid level fighter/MU, and they use their decent amount of spells for good effect. But since Xavier wants the party alive, they hold off on fireballs and lightning bolts. But as damage is mounting on both sides, both Lily and the high level MU burst loose with fireballs. I describe the tunnel shaking badly, and Xavier tries to pull his people back from the fight, yelling at the characters to do the same so nobody else dies. Most comply, but Lumarin the high elf MU decides he hasn’t had enough and lets loose with some chain lightning on the NPC’s (an unusual move for the lawful good and reasoning Lumarin, but he had just come out of unconsciousness so he gets a pass).

At this point the game had gone until 11:30PM. We usually stop around 10:30, but this fight was bigger than I thought it would be. I was getting a big exhausted and cranky (I went into this session tired as hell). I described a roof shaking and possibility of collapse, and I was a bit pissed when the chain lightning went off because I had so far been lenient on fireballs and explosions from the party in the games. I just had not taught the players a lesson about not being careful with that shit underground. So I went for a cave-in roll. Got a 5 on a 6 and here comes the cave in.

Now, the players got scared and thought I was super mad when I called for a saving throw vs. death magic. But it isn’t instant death, I have just traditionally used that save for natural disasters like cave-ins and floods and the like. It was just a save for no damage. Those who failed got several dice in damage, and a couple of the characters went into negatives, including Terry who assumed her character Helena was toast at this point. All the NPC’s managed to make it out alive and kicking, and it provided a decent way to have them escape without any more fighting. I even had Prentyss, who was charmed, turn and run out of self preservation.

I was fairly generous letting the dying PC’s be gotten to and saved by the others in the dust from the collapse, but still, with one of the party fighters and the MU now in a world of hurt and needing a week of rest to be at full capacity (or at least a full heal spell), and many of the others battered and bruised and plenty damaged, the party is in a bad place. They are at the literal front steps of the Derro area before the City of the Glass Pool, and they will be needing every hit point for that.

This was a really exciting last couple of games. Unlike the last Deck of Things game where I got to negotiate characters dreams with them, this one was brutal dice rolling and bookkeeping game. Trying to do the turns of several powerful NPC’s in quick fashion (in many cases my doing turns for all those NPC’s was shorter than most of the single characters turns) is a bit of a challenge, but rewarding in the end. It was a hell of a battle royale.

September was the two year point for this campaign. 3-4 more sessions, and this ride is over – or is it?

(added note: Lily escaped with the bad guys, much to the party's chagrin!)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Comic Dork Monday: Prez

I’d like to talk today about my Night Below session from last week, where a character in the party ultimately betrayed their trust and turned on them when that characters evil ex-boyfriend showed up with his gang of slavers. But it is just too deep and exciting to have time to post that on a Monday morn, so I’ll have that later in the week. For now, let’s enjoy some comedy filler (or an attempt at comedy anyway) to cheer up our hectic Monday (where it is raining here in Southern California after two week of brutal, record setting heat).

You young punks! You don’t know how good ya got things nowadays! Why, when I was a lad, we had a teenage president! You think Dubbya Bush screwed up this country? You shouda seen what President Prez was up to. Talkin’ to animals instead of balancing the budget. Fightin’ legless vampires instead o’ making peace in the Middle East. Yeah, Prez was what set up on this path of doom.

I’ll get to the Prez comic in a second, but let me admit right off the bat that at one point in my futuristic Champions game world New Haven (based on the setting in Superhero 2044). In the early 80’s, I briefly toyed with the idea of a teenage president getting elected and the ramifications of that (luckily it never happened, keeping me from having to retcon an entire period of time in my game world when I got older and smarter). Of course I was inspired by Prez, one of DC Comics greatest Morts (Mort = in retrospect embarrassing and poorly conceived comic book character) of the early 70’s.

Although admittedly set in an America that was alternate to the ongoing DC comics continuity (even though Prez appeared in an issue of Supergirl at some point), it still seemed like an idea out of the worst fever dreams of a hacky comic book writer. But no hacks worked on this; no less than Jack Kirby collaborator and co-creator of Captain America Joe Simon created this ode to an idiotic decade.

Through some sketchy political wrangling, the age of American President Candidates is lowered to 18 years old. Why not? We knew everything there was to know at 18, right? “Prez Rickard,” called Prez in infancy by his mom who obviously wanted him to be president one day, bust onto the political scene (in his origin story he got all the clocks in his town of “Steadfast” to run on time, making him a hometown hero) and took those unhip, fuddy duddy Washington fat cats by storm, winning the election hands down. Groovy, baby! Do it for the kicks!
A firm believer in nepotism, Prez put both his mommy and his hot teen queen sister in high profile White House positions. Also into this already weird mix came Eagle Free, a sort of a native American Doctor Doolittle. No suit and tie for Eagle Free, please. Even after the sweater and jeans teen president makes Eagle the head of the CIA (!??), ol’ Eagle still runs around with feathers and leathers and no shirt. Even in the white house at press debriefings. No damn shirt.

Eagle Free teaches Prez the ins and outs of animal fighting abilities (which, I shit you not, Eagle Free apparently learned himself from a library of animal books in his humble cave home). So now Prez can fight like…a…bear. And…a…horse. Or…an…elephant. Or…ok, look, for the most part a human who fights like a bear or an elephant is going to be fairly piss poor in your average bar fight and get his ass brutally kicked. His teeth are gonna be flying like popcorn. So for the sake of sanity, let’s just say Prez somehow is bestowed supernatural animal powers by Eagle (although it is clear in the comic Prez is “taught” these techniques as one would learn karate) and call it a beautiful day.

Prez only managed 4 issues. The most interesting storyline featured our Presidential hero battling handicapped, legless vampires. No shit. Let me just say that the truncated undead were about as scary and deadly as you would expect. Which is not at all.

Many yeas later Neil Gaiman would give Prez and appearance in an issue of the acclaimed Sandman series, but otherwise DC has not often thrown him a bone. He didn’t even show up in that multiple realities warping 80’s series Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Although my own “Prez” didn’t happen (thankfully) in my Champions game world, we at least have the original and the best to look back on fondly. Kidding aside, it is a fun idea from a kooky 70’s perspective. But c’mon, legless vampires?