Monday, April 30, 2018

80 Years of Superman

[Note, I started this post last Wednesday 4/25]

Earlier in April saw two major milestones, both of which are firsts within the realm of superhero comics. First, the character of Superman celebrated its 80th anniversary of his creation by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel on Thursday, April 19th. Second, issue #1000 of Action Comics was published a day earlier on Wednesday, April 18th (almost 80 year to the day of the first appearance of Superman).

[To be fair, DC unfortunately decided to re-number all of their comics back in 2011 when they re-booted their line as "The New 52" so the original numbering of the first volume of Action Comics stopped at #904 and the comic started over as Action Comics, Volume 2, #1. After about five years of that, with the debut of DC Rebirth in the summer of 2016, the original numbering resumed with Action Comics #957, and the publication began shipping twice monthly].

These are very significant events, as Superman was the first true comic book "superhero." Without Superman, there arguably would not be a Batman, a Wonder Woman, a Captain America... the list goes on. Sure, there had been pulp heroes and newspaper comic strip characters, but they weren't "superheroes." The creation of Superman also created a genre which has become an integral part of America's pop culture, and created an American mythology that is no less culturally important to Americans today than the myths of ancient Greece or Egypt were to the cultures of their time.

From a publication standpoint, Action Comics is one of the very few superhero comics books still in publication that can trace its on-going publication history all the way back to the creation of the superhero genre. Shortly after World War II, superheroes fell out of favor and most superhero comics, even popular characters thought of as popular such as the Flash and Green Lantern, ceased publication. The only ones from DC Comics that continued publishing were Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman. In the mid-1950's, DC revisited a lot of their old heroes like Flash and Green Lantern, revised them for the "modern" age, and created the "Silver Age" of superheroes. But, all along, the "trinity" of Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman had continued as usual. It's fun to celebrate something that's been continuously published month in and month out (or sometimes, weekly, and as noted, twice-monthly currently) for 80 years.

Given all of the hype and excitement about Superman, for my regularly scheduled New Comic Book Wednesday post, I thought it would be fun to talk about some of my favorite Superman stories over the years, and hear what some of yours are.

Superman is a tricky character to write well, and most people these days seem to prefer darker, grittier, more "realistic" heroes like Batman. I don't always agree with those people. I definitely enjoy Batman stories a lot, but I don't like him because I somehow think he's more realistic than, say, Superman or the Flash. None of the superheroes in comics are realistic. Yes, Batman doesn't have super-powers, but anybody who actually attempted what Bruce Wayne does would be killed in probably less than a week. And that's not even counting the physical toll on his body and the mental and emotional damage he's doing to himself.

Superheroes are not meant to be "realistic." As I mentioned above, I subscribe to the premise that superheroes are a new type of American mythology, something that is unique to our cultural make-up. The heroes of Greek myth were not admired because people thought they were real. They were gods and demi-gods with extraordinary powers, and their exploits provided moral life lessons that we could learn from and try emulate in our daily lives. The 12 Labors of Hercules teach us that, as humans, we need to learn how to control our anger, lest we be consumed by it and do something horrible that we regret while we are in a rage. People didn't hear those stories and think, "I want to be strong enough to kill a lion!" What they got out of that story was that we shouldn't let our emotions control our actions. Superman has the strength to eliminate Lex Luthor and take over the world and run it as a dictatorship (what he would most likely think is a benevolent dictatorship, but that's aside from the point). However, he doesn't do so. Despite his great power, Superman tries to figure out ways to outwit Lex and also to provide proof of Luthor's wrong-doings within the context of the law so that Lex can be punished by a jury of his peers. The lesson we are intended to take from this is that might does not make right.

Unlike the "Man of Steel" movie (which I did originally like, but now with hindsight, I have soured on quite a bit), the best Superman stories should inspire us, and allow us to see a refugee from another planet who came to earth and made it his adopted home, who does good works and always looks for the best in people, and who uses his great gifts to provide hope for those who are less fortunate. That said, here are a few of my favorites.

Superman for All Seasons. This is a beautifully illustrated book, originally published as four monthly issues, with each issue representing a different season. It was a follow-up book to the creative team's very popular Batman: The Long Halloween, a limited series based on the months of the year. Superman for All Seasons is a wonderful coming-of-age tale, which also deals with themes such as the end of childhood and finding one's place in the world. The art features many large format double-page spreads to show the grandeur of Superman. 

Superman: Secret Identity. This is such a clever concept by writer Kurt Busiek, of Astro City fame, and artist Stuart Immonen. It is a non-continuity story that tells the tale of a young boy in a world without superheroes or super-powers,but one that does have comic books. The boy's favorite comic book hero is Superman. Then one day, the boy discovers that he has powers like the Superman from the comics, and he sets out on a path to do good deeds, while keeping his identify a secret. It's a masterfully told tale and one that will resonate with younger kids as well.

Superman: Red Son. Another very clever concept, in an "Elseworlds" format (stories that exist outside of main DC continuity). In this story, written by Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar, the premise is that Superman's escape rocket from Krypton crash-landed in Soviet Russia instead of in Kansas. Rather than fighting for "truth, justice, and the American Way," the Soviet Superman is described as championing the common worker, Stalin, and socialism. The story spans the timeframe from 1953 - 2001, along with a futuristic ending, and also features alternate versions of most of the main DC characters such as Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Lex Luthor, as well as real-world people such as President Kennedy and Joseph Stalin.

Superman origin sequence from the first
page of All-Star Superman, Issue #1
The All-Star Superman. This is by far my favorite Superman story, told by fan favorite writer Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely. This is another out-of-continuity story that tells a very moving, emotional story of Superman, who [minor spoiler alert, but this happens within the very first part of the story] realizes that he is dying, but doesn't want the world to know, and goes about spending as much time as he can with Lois (who doesn't know, in this story, that he is Clark Kent), and accomplishes a series of tasks that help humanity and remaining Kryptonians (such as those in the Bottle City of Kandor), and interacts with all of the important characters from Superman's long history, both in his guise as Clark Kent and as Superman. It's a wonderful story that succinctly tells just what it means to be Superman, and also includes perhaps the most elegant, concise, and beautifully illustrated one-page, four-panel re-telling of Superman's origin.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on Superman, what you like and don't like about the character, and also what you would list as your favorite Superman stories. Put a comment below or on Google +.


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Somethin' Else" by Cannonball Adderly

Friday, April 13, 2018

Old School AD&D Game II - Thoughts on 1st Edition AD&D and an Old Session Recap

Long-time readers of my blog might remember that back in 2011/2012, I started running an old-school AD&D game as part of our "Friday Night" games (which have recently switched to Saturday nights). These games are intended to be a bit less "serious" than my on-going World of Samoth game, and they are also an excuse for me to dig out a lot of old-school B/X and 1st Edition AD&D modules that I've had for 35+ years, but have never had a chance to run.

Background
I first ran S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and then moved on to S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. I've had S4 since I was in my early teens. Way back then, shortly after I discovered D&D thanks to some friends at my junior high school, I started trying to acquire and read as much stuff as I could. I really responded to the idea of creating worlds and characters that populate them, and I was a voracious reader back then - in my "downtime" before I started reading comics and game books, if I had finished all of my library books, I would end up reading my parents' World Book Encyclopedia (1964 Edition) just for fun. So, discovering the world of D&D added a ton of new things for me to read and explore. 

Back then, I didn't have a lot of discretionary income (or, technically none, because I didn't have an allowance), so actually acquiring modules and rule books was a lot more difficult than it is today. My mom helped by purchasing the Moldvay Basic Set and the 1st Edition hardback rulebooks for me, but for modules I was kind of out-of-luck until I discovered that I could borrow them from my friends and my dad could photocopy them for me at his work, which he patiently did on several different weekends over the years. Although I have now properly and legally acquired these old treasures, I still get a smile from seeing all of my old photocopied modules (all of which I kept) and remembering all of the work my dad put into copying those, even though he probably didn't really understand what he was copying for me. 

In any event, S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth always held this very special place in my heart, and I dreamed of running it for a group one day. The interesting and complex mix of wilderness adventure and dungeon-crawl, with the competing political groups all racing to discover the lanthorn, and fun touches like referring to a druid as the "medicine man" of a tribe of mountain men, really struck a cord with me. I began envisioning how much fun it would be to run this adventure, which is essentially a mini-campaign. 

Of course, the reality of the situation could never match my expectations, so when I finally had a chance to run this game, which I offered to do while the main DM of our Friday Night group needed to take a break, the actual experience has so far been less than stellar. It's not totally dissimilar from my experiences running S3, but I think a lot of that has to do with my expectations and the kind of game I was envisioning running for these type of one-off module explorations of 1st Edition AD&D, and the players' preferences for more long-term, story-based games where characters grow in importance over time and become powerful and influential leaders in society. Things like "save or die" and "the bats automatically do damage no matter how many of them you kill" do not compute for this group of players, and it's caused a ton of post-game email discussions about what kind of games we'd prefer to play. 

With that out of the way, after the last time I blogged about a game recap from our S4 sessions, back in August 2012, we played one more time and then the game went on hiatus until about a month ago (an almost six year hiatus!). 

Below is a short recap of the last three sessions (including the last one from way back in 2012), along with my commentary on the things that the players didn't like and what kinds of discussions we had.

As I noted in the previous write-ups of our game sessions, the information below does provide spoilers for anyone who hasn't played this adventure. 


3rd Session: Sometime in late 2012 or early 2013
After Estian's botched accent attracted the suspicion on the Kettite Border Patrol Captain, Lord Flemin, Dwarf from the Principality of Ulek, begrudgingly opted to speak with the Captain, all the while muttering under his breath about the incompetence of his adventuring companions. After the situations was rectified, the Border Patrol Captain let the company continue on their way.

After this, they made quick work of figuring out the quickest path to the entrance of the caverns based on the aerial reconnaissance accomplished by Dolok the druid while wild-shaped as an eagle the day before, and entered the caverns.

Descending into the entry of the lesser caverns, the company were confronted with six passageways adjacent to six large bas-relief caverns of different, grotesque faces with strange features such as tusks, doglike ears, drooping wattles, etc. The characters examined the faces from a distance, and after a cursory determination that there were no clues as to which face indicated where the correct path lie, they chose to work with the old adventurer chestnut of "start on the right and work our way around."

Entering the far right tunnel, they marched in a northern direction through a fungi-filled corridor where they encountered a swarm of bats. After failing to move quietly, and with their torches full a-glow, the adventurers awakened the bats, and were mercilessly attacked until they finally moved through the corridor, which then led them into a long galley pock-marked with large holes on either side. As the company advanced through the corridor, they were attacked by "cave morays" that lunged out of the holes in the corridor walls. The characters took considerable damage from the cave morays and bats, but finally maneuvered through the corridor, and entered a large cave.

Inside the cave, the company were attacked by two large formorian giants, who had heard all of the ruckus outside their cave and prepared themselves accordingly. After a fierce battle, the company was victorious against the giants, but then upon investigating the treasure inside, the company cleric, Benedictus, donned a cloak that radiated magic, only to find that it was a "cloak of poisonousness," whereupon he died immediately.

It was at this time, after Benedict died, that the company realized that he was no human cleric after all, but a bizarre, otherworldly humanoid type creature with flat, gray-skin and amorphous features.

[DM Note: After the last old-school game through module S3 ended with all of the character's deaths at the hand of a group of doppelgangers, who killed all of the characters and took over their shapes, I decided that I would run S4 as though it were 100 years after the events of S3, and that the doppelgangers from S3 were actually an alien species living on the crashed ship, and that one of them had been mimicking a human form for so long that he had actually gone partially mad and would occasionally forget who he was. I gave the player notes to indicate that at the start of each day, the character was to make a Wisdom check on a d20 to see if he could recall who he really was; if not, he would act the part of a human cleric perfectly. But, if not, he would remember that he was an alien and that he hated humans and their demi-human allies, and would do his best to try to maneuver into situations where he could kill his comrades. That actually never occurred in the game, but the player really liked the idea of the character. In the write-up I gave the player, I mentioned that he collected and drank only jars of honey - that was his only sustenance, and in the other character write-ups, for a few of them, I mentioned that they had noticed this and thought it was peculiar, but nobody chose to follow-up on it.]

______________________________________________________________________

That ended the third session, and after that, it would be over five years before we resumed this campaign.

During this particular session, a lot of things came to light, which are greatly impacting the direction of playing through this module, as well as the overall enjoyment of all parties involved (the players as well as me as a DM):


  • Wilderness Adventure: This part of the module was added much later when TSR published this module in 1982; the original tournament adventure did not include this section. However, it was in reading the wilderness section as a kid that I really fell in love with this module. While I'd seen wilderness adventures before (notably X1: Isle of Dread), the unique encounters in S4's wilderness section really sparked my imagination. However, for many of my players, the wilderness encounters seemed annoying. A few players in particular kept asking, "How long until we actually start playing?" or "why can't we just go directly to the caverns?" The idea of them having to search for the entrance to the caverns was a bit foreign to them, and not something they enjoyed. They were notably frustrated after the first two sessions that they "hadn't made any progress." I'm not sure where this mentality comes from, other than the idea that I set this up improperly. I had also intended that this particular module could take several play sessions, but I think some of the players were anticipating that it was only going last one or two sessions as most. Additionally, while I found that the role-playing opportunities were most notable in the wilderness section, the players really just wanted to explore the caverns and few of them had any interest in interacting with NPCs that were seemingly distracting them from the "main objective."
  • Searching & Problem Solving: This particular topic has come to the forefront lately, but what I've discovered is that while this group of players are all guys in their late 40's or early 50's who started playing RPGs in the early to mid-80's (with one exception), there is definitely a demarcation line between those of us who started playing "pre-Dragonlance" and those who started with Dragonlance.  That really seems to be the difference between "player skill" and "character skill." I've discussed this with my players after the last two sessions in particular, but it had come to the forefront all the way back in 2012/2013 when we first started playing this. I explained to them that they needed to "describe" their search, not "roll" for it. That seems to have thrown a lot of my players for a loop, which explains why, when they entered the cavern with the six faces, they did not perform a detailed search of the area. I didn't offer anything, but the faces actually do communicate, but only if you approach within three feet and interact with them. These players did not do that, and just randomly decided to start out on the right hand tunnel. I do understand the benefits of things like a Search skill, or the idea that a character with an 18 Intelligence might know something that a player might never think of. That's fair - we don't expect a player who has a character with an 18 Strength to perform a physical task in order to succeed in attacking someone, but I do think that the reliance on simple die rolls to accomplish mundane tasks like searching a room have removed a lot of player ingenuity and skill in the game. I'm all for giving characters with higher Intelligence a clue if their description of what they are doing warrants it, but I'm not going to just say "Roll a d20 and if you roll under your Intelligence, you figure it out." To me, that's just lazy. 
  • Pre-Generated Characters: While I created the pre-gens for this game primarily from the desire to help my players out and make it easier for them to not have to learn a new system to create a character, I also really enjoy creating the relationships that exist between characters and giving them little role-playing quirks for my players to work with. The company of the Lucky Fools and Gloaters (the name of the adventurer group for my game in this module) include a cannibalistic druid who eats the bodies of any creatures he kills, lest they be raised as undead; a human cleric who was actually an alien from a crashed spaceship - using the rules of a Doppelganger; and a Martian, disguised as a "red elf" who accidentally got stranded in Greyhawk via a portal malfunction and has been searching for a way home. However, one thing that has come to light is that these players have a hard time getting into character, even though I am providing them plenty of role-playing hooks, when they don't create the characters themselves. A few of them have also mentioned that they don't have a lot of interest in playing a character that they aren't doing to use again (and who therefore can't grow and become more important) and also who might die at any moment due to the savage 1st Edition rules with things like "save or die" or even "put on this cloak and die with no save." Those types of situations have removed a lot of motivations on the part of the players to role-play their characters much. 

I'll post the recap from the previous two sessions later. In the meantime, I'd love to hear peoples' comments and thoughts. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

D20 Era Reviews Tuesday: Nyambe (and a Short History of Fantasy Africa in RPGs)

A couple of years ago, I started a semi-regular feature on the blog wherein I review old D20 products, with an eye toward "What information in this book can be used in different RPGs?" That's a big theme of my blog - that you can find inspiration anywhere, and a lot of D20 material had some really great background and ideas that are usable whether or not you choose to use the mechanics of D20, which I know a lot of old-school gamers don't tend to like much.

Today's book is Nyambe, sub-titled "African Adventures." This hardback book was published in 2002 using the D20 System License Document for the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but I first stumbled across it as part of a website created by the book's author, wherein he freely published a bunch of his ideas that eventually made their way into the Nyambe campaign setting. The ideas on the website were intriguing and showed a creative use of D&D rules, such as allowing Nyambe Paladins to have a lion companion instead of a typical horse mount. (As an aside, that minor tweak never made it into the final published book; paladins as a class are not part of Nyambe).

A Very Brief Background of Non-European Game Resources
The D&D game is very clearly based on standard Medieval European tropes, and the list of sources that inspired the original game creators seldom strays far from that type of fantasy - Conan, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, Tolkien, etc. The first campaign settings developed for the game were also very European in flavor, including Greyhawk, the Moldvay Basic/Expert "Known World," and on through the mid-80's with settings like Dragonlance. Aside from a few scant articles in Dragon magazine, and role-playing games by lesser-known publishers such as 1979's Bushido, it wasn't until the publication of 1985's Oriental Adventures rule book for 1st Edition D&D and its inclusion of a fantasy Asian setting called Kara-Tur, that most role-players were exposed to non-European fantasy.

That book opened my eyes up to a wider world of gaming ideas, and I began to design class variants and weapons for other cultures, particularly the ancient world such as Egypt and Greece. However, even at that time, two main sources always struck me as being very under-developed for fantasy role-playing: ancient India, and Africa.

Throughout the years, Dragon magazine published a few articles about adventuring in fantasy Africa, most notably issue #189 from 1993, which included information on how to add fantasy Africa to your campaign setting, with details on the various peoples, animal life, plant life, monsters, warfare, slavery, and character classes; and another article on the arms and armor of various African nations and cultures. However, aside from that, very little other information was available.

TSR, D&D's parent company, published a book called Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures, and also incorporated the setting of Kara-Tur into the Forgotten Realms, which gave it more exposure. They also published campaign settings inspired by the Mongol Hordes and on the Aztec and Incan Empires of the Americas, but Africa continued to be relatively forgotten.

Flash forward to 2001, shortly after 3rd Edition D&D was published, and I'm sitting in my office at work reading a variety of different message boards about 3rd Edition to get new ideas for my homebrew game, the World of Samoth, when I stumble across Nyambe.com (long-since shut-down) and a bunch of fantasy Africa ideas which were perfect for my world's continent of Atkira. I began printing out pages during my lunchbreaks and after-hours (I didn't have internet access at home during this time) to read at home, that I eventually had bound into a small book which I actually still have to this day. Shortly after having discovered the site, I read that Atlas Games was going to be publishing Nyambe as a campaign setting in a big hardback book, and I couldn't wait to add it to my collection so I could mine it for ideas for my campaign.

Nyambe: What Do you Get?
Nyambe: African Adventures is a 256 hard-cover book, including 16 pages in color and the rest in black-and-white, that presents a complete fantasy African-themed campaign setting, including details on:


  • Mythology and History
  • Races and Cultures
  • Core Classes
  • Prestige Classes
  • Skills, Feats, and Combat
  • Equipment
  • Spirits of Nyambe
  • Nyamban Magic
  • Lands, Nations and Societies
  • Adventures in Nyambe
  • Magic Items
  • Monsters of Nyambe

There is also a bibliography, a very detailed index, and the obligatory Open Game License.


The book is a true mix of both game mechanics for 3rd Edition along with lots of flavor text that details the world of Nyambe (properly referred to as Nyambe-Tanda, which translates to "Land of the Overpower"). However, as I continue to maintain throughout my game-related reviews, even if you are not playing a 3rd Edition or similar game system, there is still plenty to be mined from that information if you want to include fantasy African elements in a game with whatever system you choose. For example, reading the background for the Prestige Class known as the Magic Eaters and why they exist in these lands, along with descriptions of their class powers, is great information that can be incorporated into a game even if you don't use the mechanics. Similar techniques can be used by reading through the skills and feats; feat names such as "Arboreal," "Create Gris-Gris," "Drum Dancer," "Elephant Warrior," or "Ritual Cannibalism," provide tons of inspiration for the type of world in which the characters live even if you choose not to use the mechanics as presented.

For those who are not very knowledgeable about the history of Africa and its various cultures and nations, the presentation on the various races and cultures, as well as the Lands, Nations and Societies, will be invaluable in portraying a fantasy Africa setting that is more than just "Europe with different clothing and weapons." The standard D&D races are not represented here; instead, there are different societies of humans, each with its own description of personalities, physical descriptions, relations to other races, alignment, lands, religion, arts, food, language, sample names, and examples of adventurers, classes, and feats that are appropriate for that race. There are 12 different human races presented, but the game mechanics are the same for all of them; this is all just "flavor" to identify different types of cultures from an entire continent of inspiration. For example, there are the NaBula, who hail from the northeast and are reminiscent of real world northern Africans close to the Middle East, and the Nghoi, a race of darker-skinned Nyambans, most of whom stand less than 4 feet tall.

In addition to the 12 human cultures, a variety of different non-human races are presented, including Agogwe (small non-humans similar to halflings, but who are fierce warriors who crave hand-to-hand combat), Kitunusi (similar to gnomes with a connection to shadows and darkness), Ngoloko (remnants of the once-mighty orc nation of Kosa), the dragon-blooded Unthlatu, Utuchekulu (dwarf-like creatures forced above ground by powerful volcanic eruption), and the Wakyambi (an elf-like race that dwells in the trees and who were once the favored slaves of the Kosan orcs).

The section on Equipment includes not only new weapons and equipment, but also adventuring gear such as papyrus, ostrich egg and calabash bottles, game boards, natural medicine kits, and details on Nyamban instruments. The section also covers food, drink, and lodging, clothing, mounts, and also specialty items such as sunscreen. There is also a nice 2-page section on poison, the use of which is common in Nyambe-Tanda as it is not seen as evil.

The section on Adventures in Nyambe covers a lot of interesting details for bringing the world to life, including advanced disease rules, various secrets from Nyambe (including details and adventure hooks for each major nation/society), and Nyamban treasure (art, coins, mundane items, etc.).

The Monsters section includes not only new monsters, but also details on using appropriate monsters from the 3rd Edition Monster Manual.

Summary
This book is a great addition to the slowly growing category of non-European RPG campaign settings. While it was published using the original 3rd Edition rules, the vast majority of this book can be dropped into a fantasy RPG of any system, easily stripping the flavor text away from the mechanics to create, or supplement, a fantasy African area to your campaign world.

As a fun aside, Atlas Games' Northern Crown setting, which I reviewed here, uses Nyambe as the Africa analogue of that world.

NYAMBE


  • Format. Originally published as a 256 hardback book, with 16 color pages (including maps) and the rest in black-and-white. 
  • Price. Originally $37.95
  • Where to Buy. Although long out-of-print, print copies are still available via online shopping sites such as Amazon and Paizo Publishing, for as little as $10.00 for a hardback book. Paizo also sells a PDF version for $19.20. 
  • More Information. The "official" Nyambe site is housed on Atlas Games, where you can read about author Chris Dolunt's inspirations and motivations for creating Nyambe, as well as get links to purchase a PDF of the book or the two companion books, Nyambe: Ancestral Vault (a book of Nyamban magic items) and Nyambe: Dire Spirits (an adventure). 



Hanging: Congregation Ale-House, Pasadena Chapter (on my laptop while my daughter is at her ballet lesson)
Drinking: Stone Inevitable Adventure Double IPA
Listening: The in-house streaming music is playing "Sleepwalk" by Santa & Johnny

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Seven Years of Blogging

Today marks the seventh anniversary of the start of my blog, way back in 2011. As a way to "celebrate" today, I got my gang together to play my long-running World of Samoth game, including my friend from Vancouver who has been playing in the game almost since the very beginning (we started in May 2001 and he joined maybe a year or two later), so it was nice to have him here. I'll recap the session in another post.

I'd been reading "old school" blogs for about two years before I began my own blog. It all started late one night, when I was up in the middle of the night because my infant daughter had woken up to be fed and changed, and I couldn't get back to sleep so I went down the dark hole of the Internet and stumbled across a blog talking about Gygax's use of language, which I found interesting, and from there I discovered dozens of blogs discussing older versions of the game. After around two years of reading, I finally started my own blog.

As I've discussed before in my past "anniversary" posts, I don't blog nearly as much as I'd like, and sadly every year has seen me post fewer times than the year before. I always have intentions to blog more, but my only time for blogging is typically at the tail end of the work day, after I've picked my daughter up from school, shuffled her around to her activities, finished work, helped with homework, made dinner, and cleaned the dishes. After that, if I sit in front the computer to write, I usually end up falling asleep. I can't even remember the number of times that I've woken up hours later, with the lights on, sitting in my chair with the beginnings of a blog post not even a quarter finished.

With that said, this year I did made a New Year's resolution to blog more - ideally once a week, which obviously hasn't happened, but I do have a couple of new posts since the first of the year. Over the past year since my last anniversary, I only made six blog posts: One in April 2017 wherein I updated my list of the books I was currently reading, a July post updating what I was currently watching at the time, two more July posts about the human cultures from my World of Samoth Game, and then a review and memories of the Horseclans series by Robert Adams. After July, I didn't post again until last month, in January 2018, during which I wrote a post about two examples of why I read comic books (which was one of my most favorite recent posts, but didn't really generate a lot of commentary as I was hoping), and a new entry in my on-going "Game Store Memories" series, this one about Brookhurst Hobbies in Orange County, California.

Here are the Stats (Feb 11 2017 to Feb 10 2018 versus Feb 11 2016 to Feb 10 2017:

  • Page Views: 5,445 versus 5,564, down 2.14%
    • Although this was down from the year prior, it was a much lower drop than from the previous year; while my overall pageviews are down a lot from what they used to be, it's at least relatively steady year to year now
  • Unique Page Views: 4,856 versus 4,999, down 2.86%
  • Average Pages Per Session: 1.28 versus 1.24, an increase of 3.1%
  • Average Time on Page: 2:21 versus 3:18, down 29.04%
    • I think part of this might be because I tend to write longer posts and my guess is that  lot of people don't read them to completion, mainly because they aren't as easy to read on a smartphone due to the small screen size
  • Bounce Rate: 81.78% versus 81.10%, so a slight increase of 0.84%
  • New Users Percent: 92.5% versus 91.3% are "new"
  • New Users Total: 2,758 versus 3,075, a decrease of 10.31%
    • This is clearly due to a lack of posts from me in the second half of the year
  • Location: 71% of my readers from from the U.S., 5% from Canada, 4.4% from the UK, 2.2% Australia, 1.4% from Spain, 1.2% France, and 1% each from Germany and Japan.  
  • Device: 64% view on desktop, which is down 21% from the previous year, and 29% view on a mobile device, up 24% from the previous year. Only 7% view on tablet, down 3% from the year prior. 
The most popular pages, in terms of page views, over the past year are almost all "legacy" posts (meaning, they weren't new posts in the past year), including Fun with Any Edition: AD&D 2nd Edition, the Evolution of D&D Snacks, Character Classes: The Noble, a review of the old Gamma World Module GW2: Famine in Fargo, and part of my Game Store Memories series, about the Compleat Strategist in New York. 

I'll be posting a bit more about my World of Samoth campaign this year, as well as adding some more comics-related posts, discussions of using older products in different versions of the game, and the occasional book, movie, or TV show review. I look forward to your comments and suggestions of what you'd like to see more of on the blog, and as always, thanks for reading! I can't believe when I started doing this, my daughter was only a year and a half old, and now she's halfway through 3rd Grade. The players in the game I run are now 19th level, and I've run two "old-school" games (old AD&D Modules S3 and S4), and played in a variety of other RPGs including Call of Cthulhu, Torg, Star Trek, Warhammer 40k, and Pathfinder fantasy. I participated in my first LARP, and started more frequently visiting game conventions to play both board games and RPGs. It's been a great seven years. 

Cheers!

Hanging: Home office, new laptop
Listening: "Virgo," by Wayne Shorter, 2004 Remaster
Drinking: We had a Luponic Distortion Series 008 IPA during our game session today 




Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Games Stores: Brookhurst Hobbies

It's been a while since I wrote about my various game store visits. As a reminder, this series recaps my thoughts and reviews of various games stores that I've visited since I entered the hobby, back in 1982 or so. My intent was to write about my visits roughly in the order that I discovered each shop, but I've done a few out-of-order due to extenuating circumstances.

Today's entry is for Brookhurst Hobbies in Garden Grove, California. This was the second of two stores (the other being the Last Grenadier) that I had first heard about in a small classified ad in Dragon magazine, years before my family moved to Southern California. After we moved here in 1986, I didn't visit it, primarily because, living in eastern Los Angeles County, Garden Grove (in Orange County) may as well have been in another state, especially to someone like me who didn't have a car and was living in public transportation-starved Southern California.

BEFORE HEADING TO BROOKHURST
My initial exposure to the hobby of "gaming" was via Dungeons and Dragons (both the Moldvay Basic Set and 1st Edition, almost simultaneously), and my gaming group did not use miniature figures for our games. We only used the rule books, modules (adventures), dice, and paper. Most of this stuff I could find at the various retail outlets that were available to me at the time, even if they weren't always all that well-stocked. The chances were that I could at least find the latest AD&D hardback or module at a Waldenbook's or Gemco.

Flash-forward a few years, and I discovered All Star Games in Diamond Bar, California, which is about as far south as you can get in Los Angeles County before crossing over into Orange County. Around this time, also, I had somewhat moved away from role-playing games and gotten into collectible card games and also miniature war games, specifically Warhammer 40k. During October of 1993, I had been laid-off from my very first advertising job after they lost a huge client. I was still living at home and I actually got a whopping two weeks' of severance pay (I'd only worked there for about six months) and I'd saved money during that six months because I had no rent or utilities to pay, or groceries to buy. Everything aside from my car payment was covered. My friend Mike got me into 40k, and we of course began to collect as much product as we could. All Star Games had a very good selection, and Games Workshop seemed to be coming out with new guides and figures almost every week, for different chapters of Space Marines, or Space Orks, or Eldar, or what have you. We bought tons of figures, books, paints, and brushes, and All Star Games was very well equipped and would even special order things for us.

I'M LOOKING FOR HARD-CORE MODELING EQUIPMENT
However, after a while of assembling and painting scores of plastic and pewter 40k miniatures, we felt ready to begin experimenting. A Warhammer book about customizing miniatures had come out, and there were some really cool ideas in there that we really wanted to try. These were really advanced projects that involved steps such as sawing parts off of models and using drills and wires to assemble new designs of your own making. The 40k customizations were, to us, amazing, and we really wanted to start experimenting with some of those projects. However, All Star Games didn't carry any kind of modeling equipment beyond paints and brushes. No pin drills. No vices and saws. Nothing. And, we couldn't find another store in the area that carried anything like that, so we were stuck.

A short time later, my on-again, off-again girlfriend at the time (we were "off" at this time, but still hanging out... a lot...) mentioned that she had heard of a store in Orange County that carried that kind of stuff. I have no idea how she heard of it, because she was never into gaming (continually referring to my friends and me as "dorks" over our love of games, comics, Star Wars, and Monty Python style humor), but she mentioned it, and agreed to go with me to visit the store, about 30 minutes or so away. This is the same girl with whom I visited the Last Grenadier on my first visit.

She told me the name of the store, and I remembered having seen their ads back in Dragon. I was excited to visit another one of these "big game stores" from my youth, but I was a bit wary, as I recalled the last time I had visited a game store with this girl, she quickly became bored and we left after only about 15 minutes, despite having driven about 25 minutes one way to get there. We entered the store, and as I recall, it was almost divided into different sections, with one section being dedicated to modeling equipment. This was the only time I can recall visiting a game store and not making an immediate beeline toward the RPG section - instead I headed right toward the modeling display and loaded up with all of those things I needed for the fancy customization projects, including not only the pin drill, vice, and various saws, but also modeling clay and various new paints and brushes that my local store didn't carry. I do recall briefly glancing over toward the RGPs on my way out, but I didn't actually browse their inventory. I was fully into 40k and hadn't played an RPG at that point for probably four or five years. 

We unfortunately didn't stay very long (lesson learned - only took me two times to figure it out), but I do remember the staff being very friendly, and the store being very well laid-out and it being easy for me to find what I was looking for. I also remember that the store felt huge, even though I didn't explore the entire place.

That was the only time I visited Brookhurst Hobbies. I just checked, and they are still open for business! Their website lists a bunch of their offerings, which includes games, cards, hobby supplies, miniatures games, diecast, radio control, and tons of other things. It's making me very interested in going back for a visit.

Anybody in Southern California visit recently? Leave a comment to let me know about your experience!


Hanging: Home office
Drinking: 2015 Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha
Listening: "Cut Chemist Suite" by Ozomatli

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

New Comics Wednesday: Two Examples of Why I Read Comics

Today is Wednesday, and that means it's New Comic Book Day - the day all of this week's new comics hit the store shelves (both physically and digitally). Every comic I feature here on Daddy Rolled a 1 is one that I'll personally be picking up later this evening when I go to my local shop with my daughter after I pick her up from school.

Please note also that every Wednesday, I tweet out which issues I picked up that week, and then over the course of the week I send out individual tweets with 140-character reviews of each issue. You can follow me on Twitter 
here.

Lastly, if you're really interested in more comic reviews, I do "professional" reviews for the comic book site, 
ComicAttack where I post my reviews under the name "Martin." You can search my tag to see what I've reviewed lately.

As with all of my comic book overviews, I will attempt to explain what makes this comic interesting without giving away any spoilers. 

Today's post is a bit different - rather than talking about a comic I'll be picking up later tonight, I wanted to provide two examples of some recent comics to illustrate some of the things I love so much about comics. I know there are a lot of people out there who don't understand why an adult would want to invest time reading about "guys in tights who punch each other." I've met a ton of parents at my daughter's school who think this way and wouldn't stop to pick up a comic to check it out. 

However, as a counter to that thinking, I'll borrow an example from Joe Mulvey over at Multiversity Comics, who writes an occasional features called "What Do You Really Know About Comics?" I encourage you to read the entire series - each time he finds someone who has never read a comic, or expresses no interest, and he interviews them about what they like to watch on TV and movies, and what they like to read, and then he gives them a stack of comics that have similar themes, and after they have finished reading, he interviews them about their thoughts. One thing he always says in his interviews, when the first reaction of non-readers it that comic books are all about superheroes punching each other, is:

"If you put on a TV for the first time and saw Mickey Mouse, you wouldn’t just shut off the TV and say that it’s all cartoons so it's meant just for kids, right?"

However, most people have this same reaction to comics. They were exposed to them as kids, maybe, in the form of superheroes, and they never bothered to shake that perception. Meanwhile, just like any other form of entertainment, there are dozens and dozens of different genres of comics - science fiction, fantasy, crime, horror, historical, novel adaptations, and more. 

On top of that, comics as an art form can tell a story differently than any other medium. Contrary to what some people believe, the art in the comic isn't a "crutch" - it's not there to replace what you can imagine. Rather, it's an integral part of the story-telling process in a graphic form that can relay information and emotion different than a prose book or even a movie. I hear a lot, "I guess I'd like comics but I just don't get the pictures. I'd like a regular story better." To me, that's kind of like saying, "I'd like musicals if it weren't for all the singing and dancing." You accept the singing and dancing as part of the formula for a musical and you recognize that it's a different type of medium than a straight-forward movie. The same is true for comics. And, I do understand that, to the novice comic reader, the unique combination of art and words on a page can be distracting or even confusing, but if you just settle in and give it a chance, I think you'll be quite surprised by the way the two work together to create a unique story-telling experience. 

Here are two examples of different things I'm reading in comics lately, to illustrate my two main points: the comics aren't all just about superheroes, and also that the images and words together are part of the overall story and that the words alone wouldn't necessarily create the same impact. 





Example 1
This is from a comic called "Lazarus," by author Greg Rucka, who is is a long-time comic writer and recently has been writing Wonder Woman for DC Comics, among others. Lazarus is a "creator-owned" title, meaning he owns the rights to the characters and concepts, and is published by an independent comics company called Image. It's been around since around 2012 or so, and has recently been licensed for a role-playing game by the awesome folks at Green Ronin Publishing by +Chris Pramas. It's also been optioned for an Amazon series. 

The introduction to each issue reads roughly as follows:


"The world now lies divided not amongst political or geographical boundaries but amongst financial ones. Wealth is power, and that power rests with only a handful of families."

It's dystopian future that's roughly 100 years in our future, and at the back of each issue, the writer will comment on real-world things like scientific discoveries, political unrest, or financial crises, that impacted that particular issue. Most recently, in issue #5 of Lazarus X+66, he discusses the issue of poverty (which is rampant in the world he has created for Lazarus), and he mentions the following:

"...Yes, hard work reaps its rewards, but that's predicated on the playing field being level for all, and a fidelity to a meritocracy that does not exist. The arrogance of those who argue that poverty is the result of not working hard enough seem to somehow ignore the fact that a man or woman working three jobs, all of them temporary because it's more cost-effective for the corporations in question to not have to pay for full-time employees, are not 'putting their backs into it.'
"Healthcare and poverty are intertwined, folks. Never mind the debilitating cost of medical care, the fact of financial insecurity leads to legitimate health problems. Instances of obesity in poor communities in the US aren't a result of sloth; they're the direct result of being unable to afford a healthy diet. When you're poor and your'e hungry, you'll seek the food that's most filling, not the most healthy. Pasta is cheap. It's also a crappy diet if it's all you can afford. Health food - fresh food, fresh veg, grains, lean proteins - are expensive. Poor diets lead to innumerable, and well-documented, complications, everything from heart disease to diabetes..." 

Probably not what you expected from a comic book, right? Yes, it's in the "back-matter" (in the back pages of the book, and not part of the actual story), but this kind of thinking informed the story that the writer wrote. And, whether you agree with his assessment or not isn't really the point. The point is that it makes you think and maybe question things a bit more, as all good forms of writing should do.

Example 2
The second example is going to illustrate a unique side-by-side panel layout to tell an emotional story of two characters who have known each other for a long, long time. Currently in the comics, they are depicted as usually being at-odds with one another and each other's methods when dealing with the world. However, they have a long history and can be counted on to help the other when push comes to shove.

One of the characters is married. The other just got engaged. Both of the characters' significant others are wondering why the two aren't talking to each other. Why isn't the one character telling the other that he's now engaged? Why does the other character, who knows already, not congratulating the first? A discussion happens wherein each of the two main characters tries to make an excuse - "He's too busy..." or "I'll get around to it..."

Then, this beautiful two-page sequence happens. It's easily one of my favorite pieces of comic writing and art in recent memory. I will point out that this is going to spoil a somewhat major thing that happened recently in DC Comics, but chances are if you've gotten this far, you've either already read it, or weren't planning on reading it.





That's a unique kind of story-telling device that can't be replicated in any other medium, and which still gets to me every time I read that sequence.

I hope I've helped explain a bit about why I read these things and why I am a big proponent of the medium. I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments below, or on my Google + page, Facebook page, or Twitter (links are all to the right-hand side).




Hanging: Home office (on a brand new laptop!)
Drinking: Tap water
Listening: "The Very Thought of You" by J.J. Johnson

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Horseclans Series

My first exposure to fantasy and science-fiction, other than fairy tales found in kids books, was Star Wars, as I've talked about before, both the movies and the comics, while I was growing up in Modesto, California. A few years later, I discovered the The Hobbit novel, and Greek Mythology., while living in Sparks (a suburb of Reno), Nevada.

It wasn't until my dad's job transferred him to Sandy (a suburb of Salt Lake City), Utah, that I really discovered the rich and deep history of classic science-fiction and fantasy, particularly the pulp stories of authors like Robert E. Howard. My friend at school, John, introduced me to these, and while books like these were a bit hard to come by in early 1980's Salt Lake City, we could find them from time-to-time at a library or used book store. It was at one of these used book stores that I first discovered the Horseclans series, in the form of the second book of the series, Swords of the Horseclans.

This was purely a case of me judging a book by its cover. This was the Pinnacle edition of the book, published in 1977, and featuring cover art by fantasy and 1960's rock music poster artist Carl Lundgren. At this time, my friend John had exposed me to Gamma World, and I was immediately enthralled with the idea of a post-apocalyptic world full of mutants with strange powers and buried "treasures of the ancients." While Lundren's art on the cover of Swords of the Horseclans caught my eye, it was the copy on the cover that sold me on buying the book:
"A savage, earthy tale of the wars to consolidate a federation of nomads in 27th Century post-holocaust America!"

That's all it took for me to grab this novel and dive in, not realizing that it was the second in a series. I was all about everything post-apocalyptic at this point in my life, particularly "Thundarr the Barbarian," which was still airing on Saturday mornings, and Hiero's Journey, which I had stumbled across on a paperback spin-rack at a drug store in downtown Salt Lake City library. Finding yet another post-apocalyptic book was a boon to me. The fact that it was a very different style than Hiero's Journey, and more like Conan, was another bonus, as I was also obsessed with Conan at the time (another thing my friend John had introduced me to).

The Horseclans series belongs very much to the "pulp" genre of stories, which is interesting given that they were originally published starting in 1975, many decades after the "classic" pulp stories such as Conan, et al. However, there are also quite a few science fiction elements to the Horseclans stories, (such as the prairiecats, allies to the Horseclans, which are actually descendants of successful 20th century genetic programs to recreate prehistoric sabre-toothed cats), and some really fun, fantastical elements (such as a form of telepathy that has developed between members of the Horseclans, their mounts, and their prairiecat allies).

While there are a lot of characters in the series, including the main character, Milo Morai, what I really liked about the series was the world-building. The author, Robert Adams, was an amateur historian and a career soldier, so his battle scenes are very vividly (some would say graphically) described, but there are also lots of political entities, religions, and cultures that are all very well described and just calling out to be included in a post-apocalyptic role-playing game world.

Adams' writing is pretty straight-forward, he does get a bit preachy at times, despite his claim in the first book (The Coming of the Horseclans) that the stories were not intended as any kind of political commentary, and his characters tend to be relatively under-developed. But, it's really the ideas of the societies that have developed in the 700 or so years since World War III (which took place in the 1980s, in the series) that caught my interest as a young Gamma World aficionado. Adams' world includes groups such as Gahniks (former hippie communities, or "organics", whom Adams clearly has no respect for), The Ahrmehnee (formerly Armenian-Americans who devolved into a state of corruption), the Ehlenee (former militaristic Greek invaders onto the East Coast of America following World War III, who eventually became corrupt), The Burkers or Middle Kingdoms (descendants of the survivors of World War III in the middle of America, who became farmers, and are viewed with contempt by the nomads of the Horseclans)... if you notice a theme here, you're catching on to a central point of the series, which is the theme of civilization versus barbarism. However, Adams turns the concept around by creating "noble savages" who are the primary protagonists of the series, and "decadent civilization." In this way, the stories are very much in the vein of Howards' Conan stories.

A note for parents of younger readers - as the series continues, Adams' depiction of sexual scenes grows more and more graphic, to the point where he pretty describes in detail the actual sex acts that are being performed. There is also a certain scene in the first book of the series that's quite uncomfortable to read, as it involves under-age girls essentially being offered as tribute to become wives of enemy combatants. There are all common tropes of the pulp genre, but it's something to be aware of when thinking about books to recommend to younger readers.

What are all your thoughts about this series? I actually never finished all of them (Adams wrote 18 books in the series before he passed away in 1990), and I've never played (or even seen) the GURPS campaign setting for the Horseclans. However, I have incorporated many elements from the series into my Gamma World games over the years, and even into a Savage Worlds post-apocalyptic game I ran for my friends a few years ago, and I suspect that many of you have done the same. Do you have a favorite book in the series? How did you first hear about it? Drop your comments below!


THE HORSECLANS SERIES
Format: 18 different books, in paperback, all of them around 230 pages+ or so.
Where to Buy: Hopefully you can find these at your local bookstore, but if not, there's always Amazon. The covers on these are horrible (in my opinion), but you can also go to Abebooks to find the older, out-of-print versions with more classic pulp-style fantasy art.
Price: The paperback versions on Amazon are all $12.95; Kindle versions cost $4.99. Prices for the older out-of-print versions vary, of course, based on scarcity and condition.


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Bashful Creatures" by Hippo Campus

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