Saturday, July 30, 2011

Movie Review: The Black Shield of Falworth

In the reign of Henry IV of England, all is not well with the realm. The king is ill and leans more heavily by the day on the Royal Council to govern. The Royal Council is full of plotters and schemers who think nothing of raping a young peasant or flogging their serfs. The king’s son, Hal, is a drunkard with no serious concern for the welfare of the nation. Everywhere is villainy promoted and the common folk downtrodden.

But this is “Merry Olde England” in a Hollywood film from the ‘50s, so this state of affairs cannot continue. Indeed, not everything is as it seems, especially the hot-headed young peasant Myles and his sister Meg. Their parentage is mysterious, and is somehow wrapped up in black shield bearing a rampant red griffon.

If you’ve got Amazon Prime, “The Black Shield of Falworth” is a free “rental” for you via livestream. If you’re at all a fan of this sort of movie, period pieces made in the middle of the 20th century, you’ll likely enjoy this one. Historical accuracy is not a big point in these flicks, and while there are a few nods towards it in the clothing, it leans more on Shakespeare than Froissart. But there’s romance, action, derring-do, jousting, and a grand melee in the end.

Tony Curtis isn’t quite playing the same character here that he plays in “The Vikings” though their circumstances are quite similar. Myles is light on his feet and quick with his fists. He never walks when he can run and never goes around when he can vault over. If this were a Jackie Chan flick, we’d be saying he’s showing off, but Curtis fills the movie with so much energy it’s hard to complain. Interestingly, if the folks attempting to recreate real medieval martial arts are correct about how the fighting actually happened, this movie might be the most realistic ever; it’s full of grapples, throws, and disarms.

Otherwise, while absolutely charming, this movie isn’t a must-see. The plot-and-counter-plot of the principle factions keeps the movie moving at a good clip but isn’t nearly as interesting as the romantic elements or Myles’ quest to learn his origins. Curtis almost makes the fights seem too easy; the battles entertain, but don’t dazzle. It’s a fun way to while away a lazy evening, though, and if you’ve got Amazon Prime already, the price is certainly right.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 3: Hittin' the Beach

Ok, so three posts into this and we’re finally ready to whip out the hex paper! First question is, how big should our map be?

We want lots of room for exploration, clearly. If you’re running an "open table" sort of game, as West Marches is, where you’ll have lots of groups running around, you’ll want both lots of room to explore and multiple directions to explore at a time.

(The actual, hex-less West Marches game was probably a lot smaller than this, since Mr. Robbins encouraged navigation by landmarks. That sort of play encourages a much more intimate knowledge of the terrain than a hex map will usually give you, and six miles is a huge distance if your landmarks are things like unusual rock formations, big trees, or sinkholes.)

Just to pick a dimension at random, saying that our map takes a full month of travel to cross from one end to the other sounds good, yes? Since we’ll want a wide array of terrain types, let’s say we can expect people to move at an average pace of 12 miles per day. That comes to a map that’s 360 miles (30 days x 12 miles) across. If we simply square that, we’ve got an area of 129,600 square miles.

How’s that square with the real world? Well, it’s a hint more than 150% the size of Great Britain. That should be more than big enough to give us all the adventure we need, at least for the first few levels.

360 miles is 60 hexes (360 miles / 6 miles-per-hex). We’ll start a bit bigger than that, since we don’t want to just create a simple, square plain. I also want a bit of a border because I’m going to draw an island.

“Here Am I, Your Special Island”
Why an island? Islands work great for hex-crawling games. First, they give the area of play a solid and unequivocal boundary in the sea. When the PCs reach the ocean, the players know they’ve reached the edge of the map. At the same time, it’s not an insurmountable barrier; players can buy boats and sail outward to new lands if they get tired of the starting area (or if it gets too dangerous for them).

Plus, I never did get around to adding anything to the Seas of Os’r project, so...

When starting a new map, it’s generally a good idea to start at the bottom and work your way up. Most times, that means sea level and your coastline. Coastlines generally come in two flavors: soft and rocky. The Texas gulf coast, for instance is soft, the beaches sandy, the land clay. So you get a nice, smooth coastline, with long barrier islands just offshore.

The other option is rocky and that usually means jagged, like the fjords of Finland or Denmark, though it can mean smooth, like the cliffs of Dover. In either case, you’re likely to end up with lots of little islands off the coast, but not the long, delicate barrier islands of a soft coast.

Since I’m going with an island, I’m thinking volcanoes. And I’m thinking tropical, too, because I’m kinda on a tropical kick just lately. So we’ll start with something a bit softer, like Hawaii and its collection of shield volcanoes. Saving the volcanoes for later, here’s the coastline.


Just one big island. Why? Because we want the coastline to signal to the players, “Hey, this is the edge of the map.” We want to encourage them to explore the island as much as possible before they hop on a boat and head for the horizon. Still, dividing our island into clearly recognizable sections is a good idea for all sorts of reasons. We’ll do that next week as we swing to the other extreme, jumping from sea level to maximum elevation when we place our volcanoes and mountains.

UK map from the CIA's World Factbook. Satellite image of Padre Island, TX from these folks. They have lots of great pics of geological formations of all kinds, so be sure to explore. My map was done in Hexographer to save y'all from having to decipher my pathetic chicken-scratches.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 2: Scale

Cook’s Expert D&D says you should divide a character’s per-round movement by 5 to get the number of miles they can travel in day. At 120’ a character can move 24 miles in a day, but most groups will have someone down at the 90’ movement rate, and that would slow them to 18 miles per day. This isn’t unreasonable, as the Roman legions were thought to be incredibly fast at a speed of 20 miles per day, while Charlemagne's armies (which relied on ox-drawn carts to carry their gear and food) generally averaged just 12 miles a day. So a small band of heroes, on foot and over level ground, should be able to cover nearly 20 miles per day, especially if they’re exploring and mapping as the go.

Cook also recommends hexes that are six miles across. This works pretty well as it has our heroes crossing three or four a day. There are some other issues to keep in mind as you’re picking your scale.

One is sight distance. You don’t want the PCs to be able to see all of a single hex, especially if you’re going to be using wandering monster rolls. You may want lairs, camps, or even just the critters themselves to not be seen the first few times the PCs move through a hex (which helps explain why they’re suddenly popping up now that the dice say they should). Six-mile hexes mean each hex covers a bit more than 36 square miles. (Actually, it's a bit more than 30 square miles, but that doesn't throw us that far off. Thanks for catching my math-oops, JD!) That’s a lot of terrain for bandits or bears to hide in. Or even a castle if you need to drop one in after the fact.

Another question to consider is just what you can fit in a single hex. According to the medieval demographics calculators at the Domesday Book, a town of 5,000 people covers 83 acres, which is 0.13 square miles. Lots of room to lose small towns or villages (or orc camps) in a 6-mile hex. London in 1200 AD is assumed to have had a population of roughly 25,000. The Domesday Book page gives us a size of 412 acres, which is 0.64 square miles. At that same time, Rome was assumed to house 9,000,000 people. That may be too large for the Domesday Book page, and it returns a size of 148,258 acres or 231.65 square miles. That comes, very roughly, to 6-and-a-half of our 6-mile hexes. Paris’ population in 1200 was 110,000, which the Domesday Book page says should have covered 1,813 acres or 2.83 square miles, which fits comfortably in our 6-mile hex while still clearly dominating it.

The 6-mile hex works great for a muscle-powered world. If you want a world where people travel by jet-cycle, or live in massive cities like Tenochtitlan (possibly 212,500 people in 5.2 square miles not counting the greater metropolitan area) you might want to expand the size of you hexes. If, however, the world is full of dense jungles and tiny villages, a smaller hex (maybe 3 miles across, roughly a league) might be more appropriate.

UPDATE: More praise (and better math) for the six-mile hex at "The Hydra's Grotto."

Art by Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky and Alberto Pasini.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book Review: The Knight of the Swords

In those days there were oceans of light and cities in the skies and wild flying beasts of bronze. There were herds of crimson cattle that roared and were taller than castles. There were shrill, viridian things that haunted bleak rivers. It was a time of gods, manifesting themselves upon our world in all her aspects; a time of giants who walked on water; of mindless sprites and misshapen creatures who could be summoned by an ill-considered thought but driven away only on pain of some fearful sacrifice; of magics, phantasms, unstable nature, impossible events, insane paradoxes, dreams come true, dreams gone awry, of nightmares assuming reality.


There are those who say that proper Sword-and-Sorcery is heavy on the swords and light on the sorcery. No elves, no races of goblinoids, spells are rare and magical talismans rarer still. If these folks are right, Michael Moorcock doesn’t write much Sword-and-Sorcery.

The Knight of the Swords is the first book of Corum, one of the incarnations of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion. If you like the Elric stuff, you’ll likely enjoy Corum, who kinda straddles the line between the dour emotional instability of the last emperor of Melnibon√© and Hawkmoon’s Saturday-afternoon-serial do-gooder-ism. You’ll notice a lot of overlap between Corum and Elric: both are the last of their kind, non-human champions living in human worlds of barbarism and cruelty. Moorcock’s misanthropy is on full display here.

I’d heard that the Corum tales were based on Celtic legends, and I have to admit, for that reason, I kinda avoided them. In truth, they are based on Celtic legends the way most movies are “based” on books; a few tropes and a nod or two out of respect to the original authors and their fans, but little more. “Inspired by” is probably a better description. This isn’t the story of the Tuatha de Dannan dressed up in Moorcock’s prose; Corum is a thoroughly Moorcockian protagonist, and his quest is full of the wacky and random happenstance we expect from Moorcock: encounters with fishing giants, errant knights who fly on giant silk kites, nations eager to embrace their doom, treacherous sorcery that is, in spite of all, necessary for survival, and villains who have been central to the tales of other Moorcock stories. In short, you’ll find the usual treasure-trove for any GM short on ideas who doesn’t mind a slightly hallucinogenic bent to their adventures.

If you’re already a fan of Moorcock, and you haven’t picked up Corum, I can recommend The Knight of the Swords without reservation. It’s spot-on Moorcock. If you’re not a fan, you could do much worse than start with this one, but I’d recommend the first of the Elric stories over this; they’re both better and easier to find.

Sexualing the Male: You’re Doing it… Er, Well, They’re Doing It

So I’m sure everyone’s seen the vertical banner ads for El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. It’s pretty much poster-perfect for one method of sexualizing the male: bare midriff, wide-spread thighs, thrusting groin in tight, bulging jeans. Very much the Chippendale’s Guys Do Final Fantasy.

This really highlights the challenge of sexualizing the male figure for hetero female consumption. I imagine there are, indeed some women who will find this attractive, though I’d imagine it might actually discourage them from buying the game for fear of slut-shaming by association. Or maybe not, since Fabio covers don’t seem to have slowed down the purchasing of romance novels even a bit.

Still, it seems to me (not having access to sales figures, scientific polls, or other actual data, but when has that ever stopped me from making vague and wild assumptions?) that this sort of thing appeals more to gay men than hetero women. There’s a bit of bishi in this guy, though, so maybe that’s part of the point? A direct appeal to gay men becomes a sort of back-handed appeal to straight women? I could see that working.

Here in America, I’m pretty sure most will just write the look off to bizarre Japanese-isms. The story behind the game, as reported by Newbreview.com, certainly won’t discourage that view:
Based on the not so well known book of Enoch, the game places you in the role of Enoch, who has been tasked with battling seven fallen angels that aim to destroy humanity with a devastating flood.

Apparently, the anachronistic acid-wash jeans are a gift from a not-yet-fallen Satan, who also enjoys chatting on his cellphone while watching you smack around the minions of the Fallen.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 1: Whys and Wherefores

Chatting with a friend about Scott’s recent discussion of hex maps at “Huge Ruined Pile” it was pointed out to me that there’s really not a good, step-by-step description of how to use hex maps in a game. Yeah, the reaction you likely just had was the same as mine, but trust me, there’s a heck of lot we take for granted. The early versions of D&D did such a poor job of explaining what it was about that lots of folks thought nothing about removing EXP for treasure, wandering monsters, or not tracking the passage of time.

So, just to be complete (or anal, take your pick), I’d like to go through the process here of building and using a hex map, integrating it with creating and running a campaign. I’m going to try not to skip stuff and take it for granted, but if anything is unclear or just vague, feel free to call me out on it.

WHY?

First off, why hex maps? They most likely came down to RPGs from a boardgame called Outdoor Survival (AKA “Nobody Survives Outdoors!”) in which your piece would be plopped into the middle of a wilderness area mapped on hexes. Hexes are superior for this purpose because they offer a lot more flexibility in movement compared to squares. Hexes do make a few measuring issues more complex, but we’ll get to that much later. But largely, they remove all the brain-breaking issues of attempting to reconcile diagonal movement that plague squares.

Now, you could just toss hexes entirely, but like square grids for dungeon maps, they do help organize and simplify mapping for you and your players. This is vital if you’re doing a hex-crawl style game like a West Marches campaign. Keeping things nice and regular simplifies everyone's lives. Especially since a hard-core hex-crawl is going to do all sorts of things to mess with the players’ maps already.

WAIT, WHAT?

I guess I should back up here and explain what I’m talking about. A hex-crawl is like a dungeon crawl without walls. You’re outdoors, moving from hex-to-hex, mapping the wilderness, fleeing from (or occasionally fighting) monsters, and looking for treasure and dungeons to loot. Players can (and will) move in any direction. The big challenge for them is judging how far they can get on their supplies (and, in this case, supplies mean hit points and spells as much as they mean food and water). Misjudge the issue, and they could end up expiring before returning to safety.

The fun is the joy of exploration, of overcoming the open-ended challenges of natural terrain, logistics, and risk-to-reward balancing. It’s not for everyone, and some are just as happy to go straight from the tavern right to the dungeon (Ptolus is largely based on this simplicity). But it adds a whole new dimension to your typical dungeon-based play that offers players all sorts of extra flexibility and choices, and generally, that’s a great thing in an old-school game.

Next time, we’ll talk about scale and terrain.

UPDATE:And it’s just been pointed out to me that the original West Marches game didn’t use hexes! Xp Ben Robbins apparently felt that hexes make people think they’ve fully explored an area when they’d filled in the hex. True, but I’ll stick by them; they make all sorts of things much easier. We’ll get into more detail on this later.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Farewell to Waldenbooks

Call me slow, but I just realized that Borders going belly-up means all the Waldenbooks are closing too. That hits a little closer to home.

It's not that I have actually been in a Waldenbooks in quite some time. However, when I first got into D&D, Waldenbooks was my primary source. Corpus Christi had a great hobby store in Leisure Time Hobbies, but that was halfway across town for me. Even by bike, it was ridiculously far away. They had a huge selection of RPG and wargaming goodies and I always love to visit, but visits were rare.

Trips to the mall were much more common. It was the ‘80s, and in a very real way the mall became the social hub of the city. At first, we only had one, Padre Staples Mall. It only had one bookstore, narrow, long Waldenbooks with shelves that seemed too narrow even for a skinny kid still in elementary school. But it was at this Waldenbooks that I discovered TSR’s modules and the Sorcery! quartet of Fighting Fantasy books.

When Corpus got a second mall, Sunrise Mall, it also got a B. Dalton store. In spite of the fact that the store was about the size of modern-day mall chain bookstores, it was huge in comparison to the Waldenbooks. A more open layout allowed for a magazine section that was much easier to browse. It was there that I purchased most of my Dragon magazines. It was also the source of other Fighting Fantasy books, TSR's Endless Quest books, and a veritable horde (or should that be hoard?) of science fiction and fantasy novels. My family made regular trips to the mall, where we would dine at the baked potato place or the Greek restaurant, and then spread out to visit our favorite stores. I would invariably head straight for the B. Dalton and would frequently spend the hour or two at that single store.

Eventually, Waldenbooks opened a store in Sunrise Mall as well. It may have been the floor plan or the location, overlooking the mall’s plaza-like center, but it seemed bigger and more open than the B. Dalton. I remember being thrilled to see a standup display for the second Dragonlance novel there, as well as various Infocom and Ultima computer games. It's also where I first got to flip through the second edition players handbook.

It's also the first place where I saw the gaming section both shrink to a tiny corner and then eventually get locked up in a cabinet. That last was painful: not only could I not easily look through the new modules, but it implied very unpleasant things about my hobby of choice.

Hearing about the demise of Waldenbooks is not nearly as shocking as hearing about the demise of TSR, but it is another nail in the coffin of my youth. It's not likely to touch me personally. Borders had already closed the big box bookstore nearest me and I didn't get my gaming stuff there anymore anyway. But I do have to give Waldenbooks some credit as the first place that really made gaming available to me.

UPDATE: I'd forgotten about Mr. Brannan waxing nostalgic himself for his membership in Waldenbooks' Otherworlds club.

Friday, July 15, 2011

What I'm Seeing in the "John Carter" Trailer

Al at "Warriors of the Red Planet" isn't very happy with the trailer for "John Carter." He suggests an equivalence with this trailer for "Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time."

I'm not seeing it.

Yes, there is a similarity in pallet and action beats. Both sport sleeveless Caucasian heroes wearing lots of brown leather and scraggly hair cut at jaw-length. The Prince of Persia trailer also promises an epic good time. The music is, in fact, epic, with full orchestra and moaning choir throbbing beneath a narrator whose first words are "Legends tell..." which I'm thinking is the new "In a world…” only a bit more specific to genre flicks. What follows is a mix of high-flying adventure with lots of acrobatics and humor based on a sultry beauty with a mischievous grin teasing a clumsy-tongued hero. If you've seen the movie (I did and thought it was fun) then you'll note it is a great trailer; it tells you exactly what to expect in the movie.

The John Carter trailer is a different beast entirely. It's a much more somber affair with its pulsing piano riff that creates a musical backbone that runs through the entire trailer. It begins not with epic vistas, but with gray, rainy streets and the announcement of a death. Even when the scenery does become epic and the music swells, it grows more discordant, uncertain, even broken. There is not a single moment of comedy in this trailer; John Carter's princess never smiles, and when she speaks, she speaks of death. All of the action beats are fraught with peril. They are not our hero triumphing, but moments of tension: burning hulks, shadowy figures stepping into a gloomy room, our hero outnumbered on the edge of a precipice, our hero being chased by seven riders, the Princess armed with a sword facing down a thark with a rifle. Danger, tension, and impending disaster. No rollicking good time here.

Maybe I'm reading too much into the music and the pacing of this trailer, but there is an undercurrent of pathos here. Yes, that does work with the books in which Barsoom is a dying world. But I'm also getting a sense of brokenness from John Carter. I suspect his history as a veteran of the Civil War is going to be more than simple backstory explanation for his skills as a rider, swordsman, and soldier.

I have been impressed again and again by the writing skills of the Pixar crew. It's one of the things that gives me hope for this movie. However, they do seem to fall into a pattern of creating empathy through pain. There is something broken about all Pixar protagonists, whether you're talking about toy cowboys, retired superheroes, junkyard robots, or geriatric dreamers. I suspect we'll see the same from John Carter.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I Am Heartbroken

From io9's behind-the-scenes report on the "John Carter" movie:

What about the nudity? Will the everyone be running around in leather thongs?

No. They will, however, be running around in just-as-sexy leather chest plates, and elaborate head dresses and flowing Middle Eastern garb (specifically for Dejah). But no, this will not look like a heavy metal album cover, sorry.

Well, phooey!

On a more serious note, I am intrigued. Most of the reports give you what you expect now: comments about making it like a period flick about a period that never really existed, how the entire crew are life-long fans of the IP, about how the hero is "broken" and the heroine is "strong" and so on and so forth. You've read it a billion times before.

But the trailer isn't what I was expecting. Sure, it's got your basic action beats, but there's no throbbing X-ray Dog music, but... well, here, see it for yourself.

So yeah. Lots of fun-looking world-building going on, but very little red in the palette. The characters are horribly overdressed, but is anyone surprised by this? It's not as bad as I feared it would be. There are guns, airships, thoats, tharks, and JC himself can leap, er, well, modest buildings in a single bound. I see action and romance and adventure. I'll quibble about the costuming and such, but sure, looks like they have a fun movie on their hands. I'll be looking forward to it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Battlepug!

This is cute and silly and not entirely safe for work.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

New Expectations: the Electric Boogaloo!

There have been a few interesting articles lately written about electronic gaming. Stewart, over at Strange Magic, has decided to take a peek at the casual computer game market. There must be something in the water; I've lately been poking at MUDs and I know Oddysey is thinking she might finally ascend a character in a rogue-like.

Stewart makes the point that the"kick in the doors, kill everything, take their stuff" style is an extremely popular mode for computer games, but bears only a passing resemblance what most of us know as classic RPGing. Oddysey, for her part, knew rogue-likes before she played in the Doom & Tea Parties game, but says she really didn't know dungeon delving.

It's interesting to consider the expectations we bring to this hobby. The first-generation of players were modifying wargames or board games like "Wilderness Survival" (a.k.a. "Nobody Survives in the Wilderness"). These were very much games and rather abstract ones at that. This generation were the ones who built the game based on scarce resources, logistics, and challenges to the actual players’ abilities to map.

When my generation arrived on the scene, our expectations were based on “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and the promises that this game was like being the main character in your favorite story. And these stories were heavily influenced by myths. Sure, the occasional swaggering hero plowed through his enemies, bloody sword in hand, but you were actually more likely to encounter clever, thinking heroes like Brust’s Vlad Taltos, Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, or Piper’s Lord Kalvan. And so our games are full of lateral thinking, logic puzzles, and more intimate spaces than the mega-dungeon.

(And you can see, I’m sure, why someone like Maliszewski would see this as the Silver Age, deviating so sharply as it does from his preferred epoch of gaming.)

After that came 2e in the wake of the first gaming inspired novels like the original Dragonlance trilogy. This generation of gamers really pushed the story aspects of the hobby. They flocked to White Wolf's banner when they unveiled their Storyteller system because it promised a more story-like experience. (And their disappointment led to the creation of the Forge and an entirely different branch of RPGs.)

Now we are seeing players in the hobby with expectations created by computer games. You could almost see it as a backlash to the story-focused games of yesteryear and a return to a more abstract and game-ist style. I don't think that's what we’re seeing, though. I think we're simply saying a new generation of players coming at the game with new expectations set by how they first experienced fantasy.

The only constant, of course, is change. (And maybe hit points.) Greg Christopher linked to a GDC seminar by Raph Koster on making social games, like Farmville, more social. Mr. Koster was, at one time, the chief proponent of MMOs as virtual worlds. His record in that business is spotty at best. It's interesting to note how his experiences there are affecting the way he approaches the new social games. If Mr. Koster is correct, and social games are made more social on his model, the next generation of gamers are going to have radically new expectations for tabletop RPGs.