Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Multitude of the Heavenly Host

Just in time for your holiday shopping, Ruth Thompson releases her first book! The Book of Angels includes not just Ms. Thompson’s exceptional art, but also the art of L.A. Williams (whose "Stone Cold" has long been a Trollwife favorite) and Renae Taylor. The writing is supplied by Todd Jordan.

Ms. Thompson has had angels in her repertoire for years, ever since I can first remember seeing her work. Her figures have a heroic, elongated elegance to them, and her cool, translucent watercolors give them a pale, luminosity that feels celestial. Her pairing of unearthly heroes (and anti-heroes) with realistic backgrounds and animals gives her fantasy work a wonderfully dream-like quality. While some of her early work was a bit too comic-book for my tastes, her style has matured into something entirely her own. Even her black-and-white work, like her starkly arresting “Beauty”, is stunning in its textures and shadows.

If you get the chance to see her work in person, either at a faire or con, take the time to check it out. The web doesn’t do her skills justice. And congrats to all involved in making this book.

Catspaw Napping

From Storn over at

Y'all might have noticed that there haven't been any new Catspaw pages.

Unfortunately, Catspaw is going on hiatus. While I'm continuing to work on Chapter 3, we need to create a more complete website to host Catspaw. We want to have a more integrated site, possibly showing the pages a bit larger on the screen, maybe forums, blog for John C. Hocking to wax forth and of course, the inevitable merchandice.

We are looking towards launching at the beginning of the year. This will give us all time to spend with our families over the holidays and give me some time to get a few pages in the can. Each Catspaw page is really a time consuming endeavor.

So, watch this space for the website address, and thank you for being patient.

It's good to see Mr. Hocking and Mr. Storn taking such a big step with their work. I think this is a good move for Catspaw, and I’ll be sure to let y’all know when it’s active again.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

At last, Part V!

I’m almost afraid to link to it, considering his hosting problems in the past, but Fredrik K.T. Andersson has finally updated the Pawn website with Part 5! Thrill as the pantless Ayanah and the clothing deficient demoness Baalah take on the three-headed, er, I mean “skulled”, monstrous undead spidery thingus. Do I really have to tell you it’s not safe for work? Click here to find out how our heroines escape nearly certain icky and unpleasant death.

As an added bonus, there’s a link to Mr. Andersson’s gallery on the web page of David R. Dorrycott. Again, it’s NSFW. It includes older work by Mr. Andersson, including a few pieces that have vanished from his Elfwood gallery.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Online Meets Offline

Now this could be very interesting. For those of you who don't know, Eve is a sci-fi game of economic politics that breaks all the rules. In spite of everything "known" by the conventional wisdom, it promotes player conflicts as the primary source of fun, and has been quite succesful.

And White Wolf was, of course, the architects of the great Second Wave of gaming in the 90's with "Vampire: the Masquerade". Their "Exalted" is a current darling over at RPGnet. This is a development that bears watching...

Because Not Everything Needs to be About Art

While checking out the search path of a recent visitor (Hello, Uzbekistan!), I stumbled across a very neat web page for the halfling burglar in your life. It’s called The Thieves Guild, and it’s unlike every other D&D page I’ve been to. Its focus is D&D 3.5. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to have been updated in just over a year. Don’t let that stop you from giving it a look, however. It’s got all sorts of neat stuff, like 21 pages of ready-to-use riddles, a catalogue of poisons, an automated potion description generator, an article on medieval jewelry, fonts, and, oh yeah, an art gallery.

So I guess everything is about art.

Well, in that case, I might as well mention that you can get your fill of NSFW fantasy art by checking out the recent updates to Fredrik K.T. Andersson’s Elfwood page (new stuff outlined in red) and all three of Håkan Ackegård’s galleries: Fantasy, Playelf, and Grigbertz. Be sure especially to check out the latest update to his fantasy gallery. It’s a real shocker: a completely safe for work drawing, in color, of a guy!!!

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Critique of Larry Elmore’s Art

Continuing with my thoughts on gaming art, especially art associated with the various incarnations of D&D, I’ve jotted down some of what I think of Larry Elmore. Recent back-and-forth over at RPGnet implies that Mr. Elmore is something of a divisive figure. People either adore his work or abhor it. All agree, however, that it is very closely associated with D&D and fantasy gaming in general for a specific period of time.

About Elmore’s work. I like it. But I think if you didn’t come to it at the right time, it may rub you the wrong way, because it’s very dated in its style.

Today’s fantasy art, especially in D&D, is very superheroic. The guys have rippling, sometimes bulging muscles, extremely broad shoulders, chiseled features. The ladies are all slim, almost ethereal. Weapons are oversized, shields and armour are highly ornamental, and the action is over-the-top to match that look. Even the great Lockwood isn’t immune; check out his pencil-sketch races on pp 12-14 of 3.0’s PHB. The men sport overly long arms that reach almost to the knee. The women are all lithe and cut, with the bodies of gymnast. There’s not an hourglass figure to be seen on any of them.

Elmore’s art usually isn’t like that. He came into gaming art early in the 1st edition AD&D years. The look was still defined by the rough and scruffy art of Otus, Trampier, Pekul, and Southerland. Even comic-styled artists like Willingham and Dee “reigned it in” by modern standards, giving us characters with more human proportions and less fantastical equipment. There seemed almost a tendency towards realism, whether it was Holloway’s armour and weapons, or Trampier’s spent-last-night-sleeping-in-a-ditch hair styles.

Elmore brought to this trend an exacting knowledge of anatomy. You never look at an Elmore piece, even in his most humorous work, and think, “arm’s don’t move that way.” Whether a figure was standing, kneeling, sitting, sprawling, running or leaping, the movement looked natural and the body looked real. Clothing hung naturally from the body’s frame, flowed in realistic breezes, or swung under the body’s motions. Weapons and armour may have been fantastic, by they also looked like they worked. Shields would deflect blows, not catch them. Swords clearly would slide easily in and out of scabbards or enemy bodies without getting hooked on bones, or shattering due to bizarre metallurgies.

We’d seen similar before, from Frazetta (though I’d almost say that Frazetta’s muscular men and voluptuous women are more akin in their superheroism to today’s dungeonpunk style in many ways). But where Frazetta’s backgrounds were vague, obscured by smoke and mist, Elmore brought the same exacting detail that he applied to the human body into his backgrounds. We saw the intricate detail of bark upon the tree, autumn leaves curled and caught among the grass, the dusting of snow upon the mountainside, wisps of cloud scudding across blue skies. His environments were rich in such details, and he wasn’t afraid of distance or depth. Giants thundered in the middle distance, castles perched upon distant mountain peaks, and even further out and up, dragons soared far, far above.

The total effect, which extended to beasts both mundane and mythological, gave his art a sense of verisimilitude. They felt less like expressions of boundless imagination and more like portraits of a world just next door. These were images of our world, as it might have been, maybe even as it should have been. The restraints of gravity and physics, weather and sunlight, anchored his amazing people and creatures in a reality that felt solid and three-dimensional.

I think the zenith of this style is found in the late Parkinson’s “Druid Stone.” You can taste the crispness of the autumn air, feel the cool solidity of the granite rocks. The girl’s body is both voluptuous and in the grip of gravity; no balloon breasts here, but honest flesh, soft and warm. Her posture and attitude are so relaxed, it doesn’t feel like a pose, but like a memory. This isn’t so much a portrait as it is a snapshot, a moment of time captured on the canvas. You want to say you’ve known her, heard her grinch about what a mess her hair is, eliciting chuckles from the scaley friend at her side. I love the way the lizard’s forelegs are locked, pushing up and back into the girl’s nails as she scratches the back of its head. This is what we were aiming for in our gaming, back then: a sense of being there, of walking through elven woods, or wyrm-infested caverns. It wasn’t about the wild wire-fu acrobatics of action movies, or the brilliant lens-flares of computer animation. It was about the crunch of dried leaves beneath your boots, the weight of mail across your shoulders, the smell of leather and horse in your nostrils, and the thrill of wondering what was beyond those hills, or past that turn in the trail.

One thing that made Elmore great, however, was that while his art felt wonderfully real, it wasn’t quite photographic. Some artists of the time painted too much what they knew and not enough of what they dreamed. You ended up with characters who looked less like adventurers and more like Bob and Cindy from accounting, dressed in funny costumes. Elmore struck a balance, and you can see it in the faces of his characters, especially the women. Cool, almost cold, with lips just shy of pouting, doe-eyed beauties gaze out of his paintings and sketches. To a teenage boy in the 80’s, these were not the girls we knew, but the women we dreamed of deserving some day. There was confrontation in their eyes, hesitation in their postures, the sense that, if you didn’t do or say just the right thing in the next moment, blades would be drawn, ensorcelments would be cast, and a chance would be forever lost.

And there was the hair. Oh, gods, that 80’s hair! Not the mussed, sleeping outdoors look, or even the finger-combed, practical ponytail of Parkinson’s druidess. This was the full on, big hair of the 80’s. Poofed, curled, styled, descending in thick waves, cascading in bouncing curls, escaping loose and heavy braids. To my eyes, the eyes of a man who came of age watching Cybill Shepherd in “Moonlighting”, Stephanie Zimbalist in “Remington Steele”, and Madonna, who changed her hair every other week to something new and shocking, the hair of Elmore’s women is simply a dash of fantasy, a playful touch that gives his ironclad realism a magical flourish. Instead of the jarring image of the girl next door brandishing a cleaving blade of war, you know you’re looking at the princess of a fantasy realm, with just enough of the common touch to make her possibly approachable, but never taken for granted. I can only imagine, however, to sensibilities not forged in the decade of “Miami Vice” and “Dynasty”, that this hair must look, at best, mildly anachronistic. To today’s teenagers, obsessed with regimentally straight and “natural” hairstyles, Elmore’s choices must seem laughably baroque.

That sense of almost real applied the costumes he created as well. Worn and used, clearly, but also clearly in the style of traditional fantasy tropes. The billowing cloak was kept in proportion to the body. The wizard’s robes, while trimmed with arcane sigils, was short enough to not impede walking. Boots were sensible, and it was rare to see anyone in high heels, or sporting bizarre projections or hooks upon their armour. His outfits were almost always sensible, and looked to be the sort of thing people would actually adventure in. Yes, he did have a few babes in chainmail bikinis, but he hardly deserves to be singled out for that. Metal bikinis were more the province of Boris Vallejo. Elmore’s men were commonly showing as much skin as the ladies. And the ladies were more likely to be in gowns, robes, or armour themselves.

For me, Elmore’s vision of fantasy armour became my expectations: separate pieces, sometimes mismatched, strapped to the body for protection but as slimmed down as possible. The profile was human, not fantastic, and there was little to hinder the nimble adventurer, whether wading away from a sinking ship or squeezing through a tight crevice in a deep cavern. Protection balanced against encumbrance, with style lagging far behind both as a concern. But a bit of “costume” armour was fun too, every now and then.

In terms of realism versus superheroism, the period dominated by Elmore and Parkinson is something of an anomaly. Before them, we have the superheroisms of Vallejo and Frazetta, earthy and muscular, passionate and wild. They painted with a certain realistic veneer atop a Dionysian poetry. Today, it’s the superheroism of comics and action movies, frozen in snapshots, baroque in its costumes, and vertigo-inducing in its composition. But because Elmore was central to the look and feel of gaming for nearly a decade over a broad range of material, his influence on the genre has been profound. From “Star Frontiers” to the covers of the Dragonlance novels, an entire generation of gamers grew up with his images shaping their assumptions about the fantastic.

UPDATE (Jan 27, 2008): Mr. Elmore has reorganized his web page, and all my links to his art were broken. They're fixed now, but some of the art I originally linked to is gone. I've done my best to replace them with other options that still represent my point. In any event, you shouldn't take my word for anything I say here. Browse his site, find something you like, and buy a work of your own from this master of the genre. You know there's more than one thing over there you've always wanted to hang on your wall.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Changing Aesthetics of D&D

Seems I’ve been thinking a lot recently about art and RPGs. Lately, the two have merged in a discussion over at on the surprising renewed interest in 1st edition AD&D. Among the differences between 1st and 3rd edition that have been discussed is the aesthetic themes both games embrace. If you flip through the rule books, it’s clear to see each game has a very different vibe to it, and it goes beyond simply black-and-white versus color. Where the heroes depicted in the new books are young, well-coifed, and heroic, 1st editions art shows grubby and greedy mercenaries, often engaged in combat, and sometimes even bearing the grime and scars one would expect on dungeon adventurers. There’s a moral ambivalence as well. It’s easy to tell villain from hero in 3rd edition’s art. The bad guys, always NPCs, are dark, often deformed, sneering and hunched, while the heroes are tall, leaping into the action, usually brightly colored and with unblemished features.

1st edition art isn’t quite so clear. A classic example is Trampier’s “Emirikol the Chaotic”, found on page 193 of the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. (You can find a small scan of it here.) A bearded mage gallops up a narrow street on horseback, cloak flying in the wind. We assume that he’s Emirikol. He’s twisted back to cast a spell at a crossbowman behind him. A town guard? Perhaps, as another fellow in similar equipment lunges from the door of the Green Griffon, drawing his sword to intercept the marauding wizard. Another bearded man scowls at the scene from the safety of the Green Griffon’s doorway while some poor fellow smolders in the foreground, possibly another victim of Emirikol’s magic. Frightened citizens flee in the scene.

So what’s going on here? Why is Emirikol involved in a running battle with warriors? Are they the town guard, attempting to prevent a crime or catch a criminal? Or are they the criminals attempting to assassinate Emirikol? Who are the heroes? Who are the villains? Are there any heroes, or is everyone a villain? There are no clear answers. We’re left with only a scene of action, devoid of any moral context. Heck, we don’t even know that the bearded rider is, in fact, Emirikol.

What follows is largely from posts I’ve made over at I’ve tried to touch on what I see as the major differences in tone achieved by the art of both the 1st and 3rd editions of D&D, focusing primarily on the core rulebooks of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. I’ve also made some wild guesses as to the reasons for those differences.

I think a lot of the change in aesthetics can be explained as a collision between the corporate goals of TSR circa 2nd edition and general trends in fantasy literature. On the TSR side of things, there was clearly a move away from the moral ambivalence of 1st edition. 2nd edition not only assumed the PCs would be good-guy heroes, they actively weakened the villains (there’s nothing more pathetic than a 2nd edition necromancer played out of the PHB) and watered down the powers of evil. It’s clear from the early days of 2nd edition that TSR wished the demons and devils of 1st edition would just go away, like the assassin did. Pushing the idea of good heroes always triumphing over evil was an attempt to insulate the company against the “angry mother” syndrome. In the end, the growing cultural irrelevance of RPGs would combine with this strategy to insulate TSR not only from angry mothers, but also consumers, who would be tempted away by the dark anti-heroes of White Wolf’s “World of Darkness”.

Fantasy literature at the time of 1st edition’s publication was a dark genre. In spite of the central place held by Tolkien and Lewis, fantasy was dominated by pulp heroes migrating from the magazines into paperback collections. These heroes included Conan, Elric, and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (cited frequently by Gygax as a personal inspiration). These heroes are violent and bawdy, eldritch and intimidating, and usually dirty and in danger. The art of 1st edition reflects this. 1st edition taverns are full of buxom tavern wenches chatting up celebrating adventurers (usually male), while heavy armour, often historically accurate or bulky, is common, and nudity and acts of violence abound.

By the time 3rd edition was released, fantasy had changed. A lot. While much of the “old guard”, like Conan and Elric, were still respected, others had been all but forgotten, like Leiber’s heroes of Lankhmar and Wagner’s Kane. Some were openly reviled, such as Norman’s Gor novels. Authors like Robert Jordan, Weis and Hickman, Elizabeth Moon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Terry Pratchet had transformed the genre. Where the heroes of the pulps were two-fisted adventurers, making their way through uncaring worlds with only their swords and wits, the new heroes were compassionate and concerned. They fought not just for wealth and adventure, but for causes they believed in. Many were unwilling heroes, yanked from comfortable lives by events beyond their control and thrust upon the path to adventure. Most simply wanted to return things to a peaceful and prosperous status quo, and to live quiet and unassuming lives. These heroes were almost always young people, untested and uncertain yet of their place in society.

Again, the art reflects this. 3rd edition art lacks the scruffy-looking vagabonds of 1st edition art, replaced by the “beautiful people” of TV and movies. Gone also are the casual cruelty and most of the bawdiness. (It is telling, I think, that while the art of “The Book of Vile Darkness” is wallowing in viciousness and pain, the nudity is barely on par with the 1st edition DMG.) The heroes are either bright and cheerful, or grim and determined. Where the unnamed thieves of 1st edition gloated over their uncovered treasure hordes, the glint of avarice clear in their eyes and blood sometimes still fresh upon their blades, 3rd edition’s perky Halfling babe grins happily at the single, though rather large, coin in her hand, glowing with satisfaction at having overcome the chest’s fiendish traps.

The action’s taken a more cinematic and extreme style as well. Where in 1st edition, you could show a heroic group spread out around a dragon, bows drawn and swords swinging, 3rd edition’s adventurers cling to a shattered bridge, threatened as much by the precipitous abyss that yawns beneath them as the raging dragon above. And there’s nary a drop of blood to be seen.

Yes, anime and comics have had their influence, but not so much as movies and TV, I think. The unscarred and youthful heroes owe more to “90210”, I think, than they do to “Record of Lodoss War”. The “wall of action” style that graces the Eberron books, as well as the funky “lens” effects, like flare and fisheye, are also an appeal to the cinematic imaginations of today’s fan of action movies and console gaming.

Is it any wonder, then, that the grognards recoil in distaste? They’re still reliving their Thieves World dreams of trodding the jeweled thrones of gritty and brutal worlds beneath their leather sandals. They wish to carve their own paths in their dreamworlds with sword and spell, blood and grit. They rage against the powers that be by plundering temples and evading town guards. They don’t want to rescue orphans, support good king Lomipop, or build hovels for the homeless. They certainly don’t want to be the town guards, who they know are all either inept and bumbling, or corrupt and cruel. At least, that’s the way it used to be…

Where 3rd edition has improved on 1st by clearing away the bizarre game-isms that never made sense and giving fighters a reason to keep adventuring past 10th level, it’s also maintained 2nd edition’s goody-two-shoes pretensions. The rough-and-tumble brawling feel of yesteryear has been replaced by the accounting and bookkeeping of feats and prestige classes. Granted, those feats and prestige classes solve some longstanding issues with AD&D’s mechanics. But they also change the feel of the game, and how it’s played. They’ve increased its complexity, and made it harder for by-the-seat-of-your pants DMs to weave adventures from a few jotted notes and the odd, stray daydream. Truth is, 1st edition AD&D is a very different game from 3rd edition, so it’s no wonder that people hold strong opinions on their preferences, especially when we keep being told it’s the same game, only “improved”.

UPDATE: I've tracked down some of the 3rd edition art I reference in this piece. When I first wrote it, it was easy to assume that just about everyone reading it was familiar with the art in the 3rd edition core books. Now that 4th edition is six weeks from release, I just can't make that assumption anymore.

Also, some have suggested that I hate 3rd edition's art. Far from it! I'm not crazy about the dungeonpunk look, and in general I prefer Elmore and Parkinson, but I'm also a big fan of Wayne Reynolds, Arnie Swekel and Todd Lockwood. This article isn't how one style is better than the other, but how they are undoubtedly different in themes, tone, and impact.

I've also cleaned up the writing a bit. Articles, stories, and posts are never finished, just abandoned. ;)

Friday, October 27, 2006

David Gemmell has Passed Away

You can find the Times obituary here.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Welcome to Paintpots

There’s a new artist blog on the block, Lea Sheler’s “Paintpots”. Ms. Sheler plans to post tidbits from her sketchbooks as well as other art projects. In addition to the title page of her latest sketchbook, she’s included photos of a paint job she did on her walls. Lovely stuff! The colors and style strongly remind me of a tiny nook in the church where my wife and I were married. The choice of a sharp, gothic peak is an interesting one. Typically, the gothic arch is very cool, apollonian, and humbling. Its use in churches and cathedrals draws the eye and thoughts upward, and the severe verticals shrink the viewer, dropping you into the bottom of a pit.

Ms. Sheler, however, has combined them not only with warm, earthy tones, but capped them with delicate, subdued floral motifs. She’s avoided the towering verticals that usually support these arches. She has, in fact, sunk the shape into the earth, and gently feminized it. The room is warm and inviting. It both frames and hugs the dark furniture. And it’s not like any other room in her city, I’ll bet. There’s a lot to be said for something that is both unique and of you.

While the colors say “southwest” the shapes say “Gondolin” to me. No shock there, as Tolkien themes seem to dominate at her Deviant Art gallery. Her work strongly reminds me of the better children’s books I had when I was a kid. Well, ok, I say “better”, but I mean the ones I enjoyed looking through probably the longest, and set aside later than most. Again, a strong sense of earthiness combined with weight and a scratchiness of pen and pencil digging into the paper, almost as if she were more carving then drawing. The images seem to grow up from firm foundations at the bottom of the page. Her characters seem scarred, tested by fire. Maybe it’s just being late October, but I get a strong vibe that speaks of rabbits and toads, oats and apples, dried herbs and corn goddesses hanging from the rafters, and ancient wyrms curled around granite boulders, sipping from a shaded stream beneath hoary oaks. A touch of Brian Froud, maybe?

She’s clearly still testing out her own styles and strengths, but has a strong foundation to build from. I’m not artist, but I’d look to varying the weight of her lines more, with bolder, heavier outlines. Be sure to check out her calligraphy, which is also very strong, especially in the map of Middle Earth. Strong nods to Tolkien’s own penmanship, but with a soft, inviting grandeur that is clearly her own.

The real mystery for me, however, is why she linked to this blog. No, I’m not just fishing for compliments. ;) I am very curious why people who are not looking for a review of Ptolus read this page.

And it makes me look at my paltry list of links. Tsk, tsk. I never finished putting up my original list, and it keeps growing. Back to the forge for this troll…

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Art Update

Lots of recent art activity to talk about.

First, there’s new black-and-white concept art over at the official Dragonlance movie page, including Laurana, Pyros (in human form), a goblin, and Riverwind. Nothing earth-shattering here; I’m still getting an old-school Saturday-morning cartoon vibe from this art. It is interesting to note that Riverwind is looking distinctly not very American Indian. After Ms. Lawless’ report of her experiences doing voice work for the movie, I would not have been surprised to see something a bit more Cherokee.

Pawn is still down, but there’s some new art in Mr. Andersson’s Elfwood gallery. It’s what we’ve come to expect from his work: a few tough-looking babes, interracial romance, a surprised father, and fairy abuse. Just what does Mr. Andersson have against fairies, anyway? As usual, his art is not safe for work, though these additions are safer than most.

And speaking of Pawn, Outsider is on hiatus while Arioch concentrates on some freelance work, proving my point from earlier about the costs of free comics.

While he doesn’t have new art, Hakan Ackegard has given his pages a spiffy new look. I enjoy the random image feature. And looking around, I notice that I haven’t reviewed the not-safe-for-work Underdark sketches at his Grigbertz page. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post some comments this weekend.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Trollwife Brings the Funny

Trollwife has just added a pair of new posters to's motivational poster thread. (Scroll down past the hooker. ;) )

Hmmm... Is it just me, or is Max Zorin clearly thinking, "Damn! Should'a used more cowbell."?

Hit Locations for True20

Interesting thread on adding hit locations to True20 over at Normally, I’d be again’ it. The extra book keeping that would require seems antithetical to the spirit of True20. However, the abstract damage system doesn’t quite mesh with the “playing a novel” feel of the game, especially in its Blue Rose incarnation. I’m going to be keeping my eye on this one, to see if something inspired shakes out.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Payin’ the Bills with Your D&D Skills

Yeah, this looks like it’s for real:

“So my friends and I, successful professionals, were considering hiring a GM full time but we don't know much much to pay such a person.” – Ian Noble

Don’t laugh. The idea’s not as crazy as it might look at first. When you consider how many people want a good RPG experience versus how many people actually seem to be having them, you can easily see how good GMing is, in fact, a scarce resource. I certainly didn’t have to search long or hard to find a thread like this. Economics teaches us that scarcity creates demand, and markets generally form to satisfy those demands. I’ve certainly gotten far more, and better entertainment, from an afternoon playing RPGs than I usually expect from a movie or TV show. Even bad gaming is consistently better than most TV.

This does, however, bring up all sorts of questions about the dynamics of gaming. How much of a good game comes from the players, and how much is the responsibility of the GM? If the players are paying the GM, that implies the onus of fun lies squarely on the GM’s shoulders. A paid GM will have to provide quality entertainment to keep the players, and the cash, coming. But if the players are unwilling to do a minimum of homework themselves, such as keeping up with notes in the game, maintaining their character sheets, or even learning the rules of the game, there’s nothing even the best GM can do to entertain them. It’s a bit more like having a personal trainer than a paid entertainer. A lot of what you get out comes from what you put in.

And I don’t think money like this would ruin the game. Most of the world’s greatest art was done for pay. Bach composed most of his organ pieces while he was employed as a church organist. Shakespeare was a professional playwright who fully expected to reap a percentage of the Globe’s box office. Michelangelo not only got paid to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, but was practically forced to do so at sword’s point.

If you believe that “true art” springs only from the unsullied inspiration of unfettered artists, then art isn’t what you think it is. Cash and sex have been the root inspirations of almost everything now considered a classic.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Comics for the Comics God!

I haven’t played a game of Warhammer 40,000 in over a decade, but I still turn occasionally to the websites and magazines for inspiration and entertainment. I enjoy flipping through my old rulebooks and looking at the art, and hold dear my meager collection of novels by Ian Watson.

So I hope you’ll excuse me for not noticing this sooner: an original color comic series based upon the WH40k universe. The artwork owes a lot to the current cartoon fashion, with an emphasis on verticles and simplicity in design. Many of the elements feel almost icon-ish. And yet, it’s usually very easy to tell the different characters apart and there is a strong sense of heft and depth in every panel.

The first story, about a squad of Sisters of Battle, is a little simple, but does a decent job of introducing you to the styles of the artists, as well as their take on the 40k universe. After that begins a longer story promising more depth. I’m curious about some of their plotting choices (I would have told the sergeant’s story in a series of flashbacks, rather than all at once, in order to move more quickly into the story). And, unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to have been an update since June. Still, it certainly appears to be worth keeping an eye on.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Quoted for Truth

There’s a reason why Madeleine L'Engle’s stories are not only pushed on young readers, but also frequently devoured by them with relish. Like C.S. Lewis and A.A. Milne, her books are engaging diversion when you’re young, and a surprising source of wisdom when you reflect back upon them later in life.

A snippet with implications for RPGs, both table-top and online:

“But I don't believe it and the Happy Medium doesn't believe it, either."

"Can't she see what is going to happen?" Calvin asked.

"Oh, not in this kind of thing," Mrs. Whatsit sounded surprised at his question. "If we knew ahead of time what was going to happen we'd be- we'd be like the people on Camazotz, with no lives of our own, with everything all planned and done for us. How can I explain it to you? Oh, I know. In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet."

"Yes, yes," Calvin said impatiently, "What's that got to do with the Happy Medium?"

"Kindly pay me the courtesy of listening to me." Mrs. Whatsit's voice was stern, and for a moment, Calvin stopped pawing the ground like a nervous colt, "It is a very strict form of poetry, is it not?"


"There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. There's a very strict rhythm or meter, yes?"

"Yes." Calvin nodded.

"And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet, is it?"


"But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants, doesn't he?"

"Yes." Calvin nodded, again.

"So." Mrs. Whatsit said.

"So what?"

"Oh, do not be stupid, boy!" Mrs. Whatsit scolded. "You know perfectly well what I am driving at!"

"You mean you're comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form but freedom within it?"

"Yes," Mrs. Whatsit said. "You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you."

- Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

Thanks to Judd for the reminder, by way of Mr. Donoghue.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Perfidius Ptolus Pics

Don’t let the picture at the top of the page fool you; this is, indeed, another review of the Ptolus campaign setting, and not the comic. And it's a positive review to boot. I suspect we’ll be seeing more of these as reviewers begin to wade through the mountain of material in this product. If you hear of any more, be sure to drop me a line, and I'll pass it on.

Storn’s Before and After

I’m fascinated by the creative process. Storn, art-pusher-in-residence over at, recently posted a very detailed character description he received from a client, the pic that he created based upon that description, and a short analysis of both, especially highlighting the differences between the description and the art, and the reasons for them.

And yeah, I'm also a sucker for the Gibson girl look, as well as jackets with shoulderpads. The 80's left us with a generation of warped and twisted young men, I tell you. ;)

Storn’s Catspaw comic also continues to be updated on Wednesdays. Be sure to check it out.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Ptolus Roundup

Those of you that have already taken a gander at the Ptolus review that isn’t here may want to glance back at “Kill the Wizard First”. Mr. Vogel has started a Ptolus campaign and has posted a synopsis of the first game. There are also a handful of mini-reviews of Ptolus to be found in the forums of “Fear the Boot”.

In other news involving exceptionally thick texts and unlimited potential for adventure, Mr. Ralya of “Treasure Tables” got himself married just this past Saturday. Be sure to stop by and wish him and his bride all the best.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Go Tell the Spartans...

At this rate, Frank Miller is going to become known as the most filmable creator in comic books.

I keep watching this trailer. It’s beautifully stylized. It hits the high points of Spartan culture subtly, brushes on the historic significance of the battle of Thermopylae, and the insane courage of the three hundred who stood in that narrow place. It’s an awesome story, all the more amazing for being true, and Frank Miller did incredible work with it.

The Spartans themselves were one of those peoples that make modern historians have little fits. You can see them as the exceptions that make the rules, or the truth that shatters many popular myths: that matriarchal societies are peaceful and gentle, that freedom is a weakness in a violent world, and individuals are powerless in the grip of history.

As someone who has loved mythology since childhood, I eagerly await “Pan’s Labyrinth”. As a history and anthropology geek, I can’t wait to see “Apocalypto”. But right now, “300” is the movie I want to see the most.

Update: And of course right after I post, iFilm takes the video down. Phooey! Keep your eyes open for this one, folks. It looks great.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Don't Go There!

I’d hoped to introduce Fredrik K.T. Andersson’s comic “Pawn” to y’all when he next updated. But that’s not likely to happen soon according to this recent update:

In short, Pawn has attracted more traffic than I expected. With my current webhotel this extra traffic means extra expenses that are way too high. Until I have managed to arrange something more economically feasible I have to temporary take down the site until the problem can be fixed.

This is one of the prices we pay for free goodies on the net. Scott Kurtz early in the life of his comic, "PvP", discussed how success could paradoxically strangle an up-and-coming web comic. Hits eat bandwidth, and somebody has to pay for it. If you’re not able to charge your audience every time they look at your comic, you have to find a way to make up those costs, or pay them directly out of your own pocket.

Mr. Kurtz, and many others, have overcome these obstacles by tackling the funding issue head-on, and treating their comics as profit-making ventures. “PvP” doesn’t get knocked off the net due to heavy traffic because it makes money, which Mr. Kurtz pumps back into comic to buy more bandwidth. In addition, because it makes enough income for him to live on, he can devote more time to it. “PvP” gets updated daily. “Girl Genius”, also a professional, for-profit comic, gets updated three times a week, (six times, if you count the republication of the older material originally released in dead-tree form). Interruptions are rare, quality is high, fans are happy.

Compare this with strictly for-fun web comics. I love “Outsider” and it’s my favorite online comic right now. But updates are infrequent. Arioch needs to eat, pay his bills, all that other fun stuff. “Outsider” gets worked on when Arioch can fit it in, and so it’s probably fairly low on his list of priorities. That’s not to say it’s not important to him. But before he can even put pen to paper, he’s got to make certain there’s food in the fridge and the lights stay on. When Kurtz and Phoglio work on their web comics, they’re doing just that. But every minute Arioch devotes to “Outsider” is costing him money. It’s a minute he could be using to earn cash, or improve his earning potential through education, the maintenance of his health, or finding ways to lower his costs of living. And this sets up a vicious cycle. Money he doesn’t earn can’t be spent on improving the tools he uses to create his comic. Spending time drawing forces him to wait longer to upgrade his computer, or improve his work space, or maintain his health, all of which could make him a more prolific artist and writer.

Part of the problem with “Pawn” stems from the time Mr. Andersson can spend on it. As he says:

I weren't prepared for that BIG bill they dropped on me, since I weren't aware of how much traffic Pawn really attracts. This is my own fault. I should’ve done my homework better.

It’s not that hard to monitor the traffic your website gets. I know right now that the vast majority of my readers hit this blog right now looking for a review of Ptolus. It’s insane how many of you have been coming by to read the Ptolus review I don’t have. (But I’m sure Mr. Vogel has appreciated the traffic I’ve sent his way.) If it wasn’t for Ptolus and succubus porn, and a bit of Dragonlance movie traffic, I’d be all alone in my little troll cave, sobbing softly that nobody ever visited me.

Which is why I don’t agree with Mr. Andersson’s statement that reader donations “would just be a big waste of generous readers’ money.” I disagree. I’d be willing to pay for new “Pawn” material, if I knew that it would be produced more frequently. I wouldn’t pay a lot for it, mind you, but he seems to have enough readers that he might, with judicious marketing, be able to earn enough with “Pawn” that he won’t have to worry about bandwidth costs. Mr. Andersson might even be able to afford to spend more time on it. If Mr. Andersson is adverse to making people pay for the comic itself, he can go the same route as Mr. Phoglio and sell related merchandise. He could also sell advertising on his page, though the mildly erotic themes of his work might make that a tad more difficult.

My point is, making money off a web comic isn’t selling out. Perverting the comic against its basic themes in order to make more money would be. But cashing in on its current popularity seems like a win-win scenario: fans get more “Pawn” and Mr. Andersson gets to spend more time pursuing his art.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Cool Quote

I always felt though that I wanted to live a brilliant life you know and I sort of figured why bother living if you’re not going to try to like do something wonderful. - David Winer

Find the entire interview this quote came from, and others like it, here.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

No Ptolus Review Here

Sorry, but I simply don't have the sort of disposable income required to pick up a book like that, especially one I'm unlikely to use. Only once have I DMed a campaign out of a box, and only briefly at that. Still, it does look like a yummy thing, full of cool ideas, so I'm eager to hear what others are saying about it myself.

With any luck, we may have a review at Kill the Wizard First, sometime in the near future.

No pressure, Mr. Vogel. ;)

UPDATE: Get your Ptolus review right here: My god, it's full of awesome.

AKA, one more excuse to finally do what you know you want to do, have wanted to do since you first got a glimmer of what Monte was up to. Yes, I can feel your RPG-book lust flow through you. Type in Monte's URL and your journey to the dark side will be complete! ;D

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

True20 Feats Categorized

Over on the True20 forums, Bhikku writes:

If you're anything like me, you're using True 20 to introduce new players to your favorite hobby. But if your new players are anything like mine, they're a little overwhelmed by a huge menu of choices - particularly when it comes to feats. Sure, the role-specific feat lists are elegant yet comprehensive, but my players have been prone to passing up general feats that would serve their concepts quite well simply because the list is a little intimidating. And so many of the feats are combat-oriented that a player looking to enhance her hero's integration into the setting & its societies has difficulty locating her kind of feats - while, on the other hand, the adept who wants to gain a slight edge in combat wants to see all of his preferred feats at once.

There's no perfect solution, but here's at least a decent one. I've broken the General Feats list down into a few smaller, thematic lists.
What follows is a categorized list of the general feats. It certainly looks much friendlier to me. If you're a True20 fan, check it out.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Dragonlance Movie Concept Art

Finally, we get a hint of what some of the major characters will look like. Keep in mind that this is black-and-white concept art still. Not final versions. Frankly, we won't be able to say much about the quality until we can see the final versions on the final background moving about. Animation is tricky that way. Something that looks great standing still could be horrible in motion, and vice versa.

That said, what I see here strongly reminds me of the old Hanna-Barbera stuff from the 80's. No, not the wonky Captain Caveman much loved by the Trollwife, but the more realistic, "dramatic" shapes. Anyone worried about a strong anime influence can probably relax. Not an oversized eye to be seen. And I'm not seeing much toy-manufacturer influence either; the weapons are properly proportioned to the bodies, instead of being oversized and unwieldy. This makes me even more curious about how the characters will move. If I never see anyone do a summersault through the air during a battle scene, I'll be a much happier Troll. ;)

Things That Make You Go, "Maybe Cool."

First, there’s this from Microsoft, via f13. Stephen Zepp of Garage Games has this to say in the comments:

Basically what it boils down to is that this version of the framework is not intended to make game developers money in the short term. You cannot sell your games via the Express version, and you cannot (currently) even distribute outside of the Live Arcade interface. the purpose behind this is to get the power and money of Microsoft behind a gaming industry grass roots movment back towards innovation and gameplay instead of sequels and multi-million dollar budgets.

This might be a big deal. And it might not. This isn’t a magical ap that allows you to build a game without coding. It is the magical ap that allows people who want to code the opportunity to share their joy with x-box users. It will allow the kid today who wants to be a game programmer the chance to show up for his first job interview with a portfolio in hand. It will probably allow the half-mad genius with the new spin on computer gaming the desperately needed opportunity to break into the mainstream.

I’m still trying to decide if that’s a good idea or not. It probably is. Mainstream computer games certainly need the shot in the arm.

And speaking of shots in the arm, two of my favorite computer game makers, Bioware and Simutronics, aren’t exactly teaming up, but do seem to be splashing in the same puddles here. (Via the Ziggurat of Doom!) I like that Bioware isn’t interested in spending resources reinventing the wheel. But we’ll have to see if this here HeroEngine thingy is what Bioware needs and if it’s stable enough and easy enough to use for it to actually be useful. Neither outfit is a bunch of young punks hacking code in a basement. So ease of use and stability are probably there. I’m very curious to see what Bioware, a company famous for the depth and story of their RPGs, does with a MMOG. I doubt it will be the online LARP I’m waiting for, but I’m hopeful.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Catching Up with the Dragonlance Movie

Ugh! I let myself get sick, and I fall so far behind. :p

Ok, lots of movement on the Dragonlance movie since last I updated. First, Keifer “Jack Bauer” Sutherland is voicing Raistlin. A good choice, I think. He may be the man from “24” to most folks, but I’ll always think of him as the leader of the “Lost Boys”. The rest of the cast list can be found here, complete with links to their IMDB profiles. Just clicking a few at random, it looks like almost all of them have pretty heavy voice acting résumés.

On the art front, there’s still not much info yet. Kunoichi Creative, the company handling the animation, did post on the official forums to try to quiet fears of a “manga” style Dragonlance. Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded something reminiscent of “Record of Lodoss War”, but I can certainly understand how some people feel anime is a fad whose time has passed. I don’t agree, mind you, but it is everywhere these days in the USA.

Words are nice, but nothing compares to seeing the actual work itself. As it so happens, both Weis and Hickman make “cameo” appearances in the movie, and you can see how they were rendered by the artists here. Not bad. I certainly don’t want to stab my eyes out. The clothing is the odd, anachronistic mishmash one expects to find at Renaissance faires, which is a tad disappointing. I doubt we’ll see much, if any, influence from Elmore or Caldwell. There’s some concern that they look too bright and clean, but I suspect we see them early in the movie before all the horror and war have begun. Still, I'm not expecting to see a Frazetta brought to life here. I very much want to catch of glimpse of these figures in motion, what the backgrounds will look like, and I’m especially curious about the dragons. Dragons are not easy to draw well, and I’ve seen some real stinkers, even from professionals who make their livings creating fantasy art. (My favorite dragons are those done by Den Beauvais, especially the ones appearing on the covers of Dragon Magazine back in the ‘80’s.)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Build Your Own Space Opera Show

Over on her live journal, 3jane wrote:

So, having bitched about SG1/SGA, I then sat down to think about what I do and don't like about them, which blends nicely with my tendency to wander back and forth from campus while listening to various geek mixes on my iPod and contemplating what I do and don't like about other space operas. And so, in the spirit of how I vaguely understand fantasy football to work, I'm attempting a fantasy space opera, pulling elements I like from individual shows. (And because one can't play fantasy football/fantasy space opera alone, I hereby invite others to play.)

So, limiting myself to TV, just as a matter of practical necessity, what do I choose?

Dr. Who: Diverse cultures, alien aliens, extended stories that aren’t tied up all nice and neat at the end of an episode, likeable but not always understandable heroes, and a slightly offbeat sense of humor and fashion.

Blake’s 7: Utter scoundrels for “heroes” like Avon, and sleek, cool villains like Servelan who you still admire, even as you recognize that both sorts are moral cripples.

Original Star Trek: Being out on the edge, pushing the envelope, seeing things that no one else has ever seen before. The mutability of cultures. The importance of principles. Starships and faster-than-light travel, though I think I prefer the hyperspace technology of…

Babylon 5: Oh, where to start? Talk about an embarrassment of riches! The courage to not be what everyone expects. A real, serial story with a beginning, middle, and end. Mystery and ancient civilizations. Romance. Moral dilemma that can’t be easily resolved. Facing the tough choices and then enduring the consequences of those choices. Aliens that don’t act like people. Aliens that don’t look like people. Real science. No magical shields. Exceptional music. Better-than-average special effects. Original starship designs. Great costuming. Truth. The willingness to do unpleasant things to characters, cultures, entire planets when the story demands it. Heart-lifting victory. Heart-rending tragedy.

Andromeda: Peoples who are not nice, but must be dealt with, and not merely as villains.

Babylon 5 – Crusade: The mythic quest, in almost Arthurian style.

Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Broad, sweeping saga, huge cast, conflicted heroes, opposing heroes who are both worthy of victory, and the evil of corrupted and powerful individuals.

Vision of Escaflowne: Personal tragedy, swashbuckling adventure, fanciful technology, giant mecha, personal redemption, and science that acts like magic, tinkering with the very forces of fate itself.

Macross – Plus: Stories about people! Not machines or technologies or special effects.

Ghost in the Shell: Blurring the lines between people and machines. ;)

Firefly: Rogues, barely scraping by and holding their ship together with duct-tape and chickenwire. The nobility of common people, commerce, and trust.

Got a list of your own?

Sunday, July 30, 2006

"If you ever wanted to go and live on Babylon 5, you will have your chance."

So there’s talk now about a Babylon 5 massively multiplayer game. It’s all rumor right now, so of course I’m going to jump into the feeding frenzy, such as it is, with both feet.

I love B5. It may be the best TV I’ve ever watched. It certainly ranks up there in the top three for fiction. But I’ve rarely felt compelled to roleplay in the B5 universe. What would I do? Oh, I suppose finishing out the “Crusade” storyline could be fun, and there are lots of neat avenues to explore, places to go, that sort of thing. But there are also some pretty strict limits on what you can do in that universe, and they chafe a bit when I think about building a campaign. So my opinion here might be biased. That being said:

What the hell do you do in a Babylon 5 MMORPG?

Seriously. I mean, most MMORPGs are the worst parts of computer RPGs, yielding an endless sequence of killing things and taking their stuff. Story and consequence (beyond your own advancement) are non-existent. It’s like computer RPG makers can’t even conceive of anything that isn’t firmly railroaded, so if you can’t railroad, there’s no point in creating anything that looks like a story. If you’re coming at these games from a table top perspective, it’s enough to make you cry.

But story is the heart of B5. It’s always been about making the tough choices, having your convictions and beliefs challenged, about growing as a person. Who are you? And what do your answers to that question mean? What do you want? And how much are you willing to give up for it?

That last is very important. Mr. Straczynski was enamored of the lone man in the narrow place, holding it against the endless horde of enemies. Horatius at the bridge, the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Alamo, where a handful stood against far greater numbers and withheld the charge. That’s what all the ramming was about. It wasn’t that crashing ships together was a great tactic, but rather it showed just what the captain and crew of the ramming ship were willing to lose in order to achieve their desire. It demonstrated in unequivocal terms exactly what was at stake, and how dearly the combatants held to what they believed in.

But what does that mean in your average MMORPG, where everyone is effectively immortal? Will ships ram together, only for their crews to rez and then rush into each other again? How do you ‘level up’ in the universe of Babylon 5? What will you kill? What will you take from dead? I can’t see where B5 offers any sort of easy, recursive entertainment which to date has been the hallmark of MMORPGs. I don’t see how you can create B5 entertainment without addressing the issues of loss and sacrifice. I don’t see how you can create a MMORPG that will touch either loss or sacrifice in any meaningful way with a ten foot pole. I love B5, but with the current state of the computer game industry, B5 feels like an even worse theme for a MMORPG than Star Trek.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

DMing for Dummies

Steve S. has posted a review of another “…for Dummies” book aimed at the RPG market, Dungeon Master for Dummies. He gives it a fairly glowing review:

I am a little surprised at my reaction to this book. Considering the size of the book and the quality of the contents, Dungeon Master for Dummies may be the best "how to run a role playing game" book published to date.

I haven’t read it myself, but I’m a fan of some of Mr. Baker’s other work. There are only two reviews so far at Amazon, and they’re split. I’ve had good experience with other Dummies books in the past, so I’m curious about this one. Steve’s review certainly makes it seem a lot meatier than I would have expected.

Speaking of Amazon, while I was convalescing, I reread Fritz Leiber’s Swords of Lankhmar. Amazon, amazingly enough, seemed to be lacking a review of that book, so I rectified the situation.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

New Blog on the Block

There's a new voice in the blogosphere. J. Vogel has just created "Kill the Wizard First", his new blog, which is a bit more focused on actually playing RPGs than Trollsmyth. The first post gives us a clear indication of Vogel's point of view:


That magical time when you take the brilliant, original, and interesting concept in your head, then grab a sledgehammer and crowbar and try to wedge it into a system that was clearly written for emotionally immature powergamers, then run it by your GM who promptly starts thinking up all the horrible ways it can be killed, then introduce it to the rest of the party and realize that your dark, amoral pragmatist is in a group with a paladin and a cleric of holy light.

Anyway, the point is, I have a new blog. And here it is.

Clearly, this is someone who actually games. And I love the url:

Behold the Lego Carnage!

This has got to be one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. If you think Vincent “Lumpley” Baker is too submerged in his world of cant and theory to actually recall that games are supposed to be, you know, fun, this should change your mind. A table-top fighting mecha Lego game. I haven’t played it yet, but I am in awe of the rules. Elegant, simple, and slick. You can see how these hang together, how choosing each option is an exercise in weighing costs and benefits. It’s a work of art. But better than some old stuffy panting of red square meets blue circle hanging in the Guggenheim, this work of art encourages you to buy Legos and taunt your friends as you deliver unto them your unholy plastic brick smackdown!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Weis Approves of Dragonlance Movie Script, quickly becoming the best alternative source for news on the Dragonlance movies, has posted a few comments from Margaret Weis. Her words almost seem to be in response to some fan consternation about Dragonlance being turned into “a cartoon”. Weis, however, remains unpeturbed:

Author Margaret Weis told SCI FI Wire that the upcoming film version of her book Dragons of Autumn Twilight necessarily cuts a lot of the book's plot to make it fit into 90 minutes, but, she added: "I read the script, and I like it. It's very faithful to the book."

This generally fits the vague statements coming from Hickman in his podcasts. Still no examples of character design or artwork. If any of you see something before we do, be sure to let us trolls know.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

American Superheroes - Happy Birthday to the USA

Over at Aint It Cool News the crew have each listed the ten movies that best represent America to them. The Superman movies, of course, made the list for many of them. In spite of the intentions of the makers of the current movie, Superman remains an American hero: an immigrant who has embraced the ideals, rituals, and mythology of his adopted home, while bringing the best of his original home with him. It has often been said the USA is a nation not of tribe, but of ideas. The only thing necessary to truly be an American is to adopt and hold dear the ideas upon which our country is founded, described best in the preamble to our Declaration of Independence. Actual citizenship is a legal technicality. I suspect there are undocumented Americans scattered across the globe.

I am shocked, shocked, that “Casablanca” wasn’t listed by any of them. Is there a more apt idealization of America? A little rough around the edges, not quite respectable, with a tortured past best not talked about. Looking for the good life, and doing what it takes to build a seedy little paradise of excess and good times upon a foundation of tight-fisted finances and an almost puritan work ethic. Being dragged into the messes of the wider world, knowing it’s the right thing to do, knowing old friendships require it and the future demands it, but dammit, just wanting to be left alone to pursue the dreams kept for decades, now a little worn around the edges and tarnished, but still there, beneath the pillow, kissed every night before settling in to sleep.

But that was then, and today, few Americans hold so fast to the ideals of seclusion and ignorance that seemed so seductive in the nineteen-thirties. Today, if you asked me to point to one movie that looked like America to me, I’d go back to the superheroes, and choose the second of the Spider-Man movies. Doing the right thing is a bitch, and Peter Parker’s tired of it. It’s making him ill, and even those amazing powers that at first imposed extra responsibility on him seem to have deserted him. Wouldn’t it be better to just leave it all behind and nurture those smaller, more pleasant dreams, and pretend that the waking nightmares of the world aren’t our problem?

But of course, that’s never really an option. With great power does come great responsibility. Spider-Man is motivated, like America, by a complex mingling of compassion, righteous indignation, hope, and self interest. He can’t save the world, and even when choosing the right thing, he sometimes has to do an evil thing, like kill his best friend’s father. And he knows he’ll have to pay for that, some day. Doing the right thing is never easy. But the world needs heroes.

And those heroes must live by a code. Both Spider-Man and Superman are bedeviled by foes who seek to use their compassion against them. Rescuing innocent bystanders strains Spider-Man to his limits. But that is no weakness. It is a strength. Today, we hear how our infatuation with rights leaves us weak and divided before our enemies. Well, back during the Cold War, we were told that our infatuation with freedom left us disorganized and weak-willed in the face of communism’s disciplined and efficient central planning. We all know how that turned out. The frothy chaos of free enterprise gave birth to the computer revolution, the internet, biochemistry, and other wonders that didn’t even exist twenty years ago, while in the Soviet Union, the people pretended to work and the government pretended to pay them. Central planning ground its victims into dust, and then choked in that stale, grey cloud.

So yeah, we’ll argue vigorously, even viciously, about what to do and how to do it. Which means we won’t move without forethought, and we won’t rest in our ruts. We will always be questioning, weighing, planning, thinking, and dreaming of new and better ways to achieve our goals. We’ll build smarter weapons, train smarter soldiers, worry about getting it wrong, and we will get it wrong. Many times. But we’ll try not to make the same mistakes again. Our enemies won’t care, and so they won’t improve. Conserving effort is only half the equation in efficiency. The other half is increasing effectiveness.

So we’ll muddle through the problems of having a free press and not wanting to harm the innocent. Like Spider-Man’s effort to save the train, it’s gonna hurt, and it won’t be easy. But we’ll be better for it, in the end. Freedom and compassion are not weaknesses. The fact that our enemies think they are is the primary reason they must be fought.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Potter Speculatin'

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Rowling’s intimations of the death of Harry Potter in the last book. Most of the conversation appears to be coming from a moral viewpoint; what sort of lesson does it teach if Harry dies?

I haven’t seen much tackling the literary aspects of it. Frankly, I’ve been pretty certain that either Harry or Ron was going to die before the end of the series. There have been some strong intimations of it since the first book. Remember the life-sized chess match, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione were trying to get to the philosopher’s stone? The one where Harry had to sacrifice Ron in order to make it through?


And how far would Harry go, do you think, to slay Voldemort? Or, heavens help us, poor Snape? (C’mon, surely everyone has figured out what was really going on between Snape and Dumbledore in the Headmaster’s final moments. One wonders if Draco will prove worthy of the sacrifice.) Harry’s had a very dark streak in him since day one, and it’s only gotten worse as he’s gotten older. How much of it is just himself, and how much is his link to Voldemort?

Would Voldemort be willing to die if by such an act he corrupted Harry enough to continue his work? Or, for that matter, can Voldemort be slain without killing Harry? I think this is an even more vital issue. The two are linked, by Voldemort’s attempt to slay Harry and the later ritual that used some of Harry’s blood to resurrect Voldemort. Over the course of the books, it’s almost seemed to me that you can’t kill one without killing the other. But can Voldemort be imprisoned? The baleful guards of Azkaban have already proven their allegiance to Voldemort, and so he clearly cannot be incarcerated there. Is there another way, a safe way, to seal him away where he can never escape again?

The triangle is the most unstable shape in literature. Even with the addition of Ginny to the Ron-Harry-Hermione matrix, the shape still feels untrustworthy. But then, misdirection of this sort has always been one of Rowling’s great strengths as an author. What sort of a fall have we been set up for this time? We all know how these sorts of stories are supposed to end. How is Rowling using our expectations to distract us from the important matters at hand? I, for one, can’t wait to find out.

Friday, June 30, 2006

A Dragonlady Speaks

Cindi Rice, one of the executive producers on the Dragonlance movie, recently spoke with Sci Fi Wire about the flick. Among the interesting things mentioned is this comment on the status of their progress:

Rice said that the Dragons movie is in the final stages of preproduction. "We've already recorded 90 percent of the voices, and we'll be finalizing the animatic [animated storyboard] next month," she said.

So clearly we're looking at recording the voices before working on the final animation. And it sounds like things are humming along nicely. We trolls will be keeping our eyes peeled for more cast revelations and, hopefully soon, examples of character designs. However, if they're only going to have the animatic finished in July, we probably will only just be seeing final designs around Christmas.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Animation vs. Live Action

There’s been some disappointed grumbling on the web about the Dragonlance movie being animated. I can certainly understand why, but I won’t be joining it. There is nothing that prevents an animated film from having as much, if not more, artistic, intellectual, and emotional impact as a live action film. People do tend to separate them in their minds here in the occident, but that’s not universally true. We’ve seen glimpses from Hollywood of animation’s potential in flicks like “The Incredibles” but nothing yet with the power of “Graveyard of the Fireflies” or “Princess Mononoke”. Those two animated films I’ll put up against just about anything live action, and certainly anything coming out of Hollywood in the past thirty years.

The big hurdle will be the assumption that animation is for children, and cannot be used to tell meaningful or deep stories. Getting people to go to the theater to see it will be the challenge, as “it’s a cartoon” wars with “it’s PG-13”. Of course, Peter Jackson had the same issues to overcome. The Lord of the Rings is generally seen as a children’s story here in the US, and fantasy movies are kid’s fare. Before the first movie came out, the children’s meals at Burger King got you a cute little mug with a picture of one of the characters on it that lit at the base, and, even more jarring, a cardboard crown with the ring’s inscription written across it. And yes, after the first movie came out, that sort of nonsense disappeared quickly. But it took the movie to change opinions.

Actually, the Dragonlance story is well crafted for this. It has its slapstick elements, with gully dwarves and kender, and its moments of great spectacle and wonder, in its haunted forests and massive battles. All of these play to traditional animation’s strengths. But the story does not play by traditional American animation’s rules, and anyone still clueless as the movie enters its dénouement will get the lesson hammered home good and hard at Sturm’s funeral.

So I see this as a great opportunity for animation to finally realize its potential in Hollywood. If this film is as great as it can be, it has the potential to change people’s opinions about animation and what its “proper” uses are. And if it does that, who knows? Maybe we’ll finally get to see a full-bore Elfquest movie, too.

Jim Baen has Passed Away

It's a sad day in the troll cave. Jim Baen was an incredibly forward-thinking guy, on the cutting edge of e-publishing, a radical in his way of doing business, and a man whose influence on modern SF simply can't be overstated.

If you haven't checked out the Free Baen eLibrary, you really should. Who else in the publishing business lets you get an entire book as a free sample? I mean, c'mon, reading good fiction is addictive. You'd think more publishers would have hit on the notion of "the first hit is free." Mr. Baen was unique in his understanding of readers and business.

Read his obituary by David Drake here.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Catspaw Update: Blood in the Rain

It looks like Catspaw is being updated with a new page every Wednesday. Today’s update includes a new introductory page. It’s clearly intended to bring readers “up to speed” on the background, but I’m not certain it was necessary. The writing in the comic itself seems more than sufficient, though it does leave you wanting more. That’s rarely a bad thing.

As it is, the new preface seems a bit rough to me. “But her motives are known and unknown, for hidden forces move about her” does not fall trippingly from my mind’s tongue. The physical layout of the text on the page also leads me to suspect it’s poetry, but at 5:00 AM, I’m unable to detect any sort of meter to it.

I know that if I didn’t have broadband, going through all previous existing pages to get to the new ones would be aggravating. With broadband, it’s a mild annoyance.

The new pages look good. Storn continues to deliver the goods, giving us a more realistic portrayal of weapons and bodies than you’ll see in most anime, gaming, and comic art these days. Some of the action has a mild wire-fu feel to it, but nothing that feels out of place beside the heroics of Conan or the acrobatics of the Grey Mouser.

I’m conflicted on the first panel of page 7. While the pose of our hero’s body does point the eye to the redcloak and our heroine, where the tension of the moment is focused, they are so clearly in the background that I want to focus on him. And our angle makes the hand holding the axe look awkward and denies it the gathering energy surely about to be unleashed in a deadly throw.

But I do love the use of side-by-side columns, one focused on him and the other on her. And the look on her face in the second panel is perfect. I don’t think I’ve ever found a bald woman quite so alluring before. And you know her foe is in for a world of hurt. Will the Philosopher’s Spike reveal its power on the next page? Anticipation mounts!


Poof! And like that, the unofficial Dragonlance Movie Site becomes the official Dragonlance Movie Site:

The film is based on the first book in the Chronicles series, "Dragons of Autumn Twilight". The director is comics and TV animation veteran, Will Meugniot, and the screenplay has been adapted by George Strayton with plenty of involvement from Margaret and Tracy.

There's a lot of information on the web site sure to spark all sorts of commentary, arguments, and the usual internet fandom fun, including the identities of the director, writer, and production companies. A potentially large firestorm may brew around the choice of Kunoichi for some of the conceptual artwork. While the Kunoichi site is dominated by manga-style art, that's no guarantee we'll be getting a "bishie Raistlin."

We trolls will, of course, keep our ears perked for any unofficial news, but rest assured that you can now point your browser to for the true and lively word.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Weis on Dragonlance Movie

Confirmations continue to roll in. Now that Lawless (and Hickman, truth be told) has spilled the beans, Margaret Weis joins the chorus:

Paramount Studios is making Dragons of Autumn Twilight as a full-length, adult, animated movie. I'll let the movie site provide you with details on the director, screen play writer, animation house, and all that.

The really exciting part of this news is that someone at Paramount has the cojones to try to turn this into a multi-movie deal. Instead of trying to cram the entire trilogy into a single movie, they will instead spread it out over three. And if Weis says it's adult, we don't need to worry about the all-singing, all-dancing Disney-fication of the story. I'm curious what "full length" means in this case. 90 minutes? 140 minutes? Oh-God-make-it-stop-my-eyes-are-bleeding-Lord-of-the-Rings 200+ minutes? Ok, that last is exceptionally unlikely.

I'm also dying to know what the look of the thing is. Dragonlance has been blessed in the past with some of the best artists to be stabled at TSR. Larry Elmore, of course, did the covers for the original books. The modules the books were based on featured cover art by Clyde Caldwell. (I forget who did the interior art for both. Someone want to remind me?) Those are tough acts to follow. It will be very interesting to see who Paramount gets to do character designs and animation for this project.

More news here as it becomes available...