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Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Book Of The Month: The Mark Of Nerath

It's somehow appropriate that the first original novel set in the default Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition setting, The Mark Of Nerath, is penned by Bill Slavicsek, Director of R&D for Dungeons & Dragons and Book Publishing at Wizards of The Coast.

This is a man with mighty gaming credentials, but I believe this is his debut novel.

It's also the only branded Dungeons & Dragons novel I've ever read - barring Quag Keep (which I thought was great when I was teenager and not so much when I read it again last year). I've never even read a single Dragonlance book.

And I have to wonder if Slavicsek's strength is also his weakness.

Sometimes his descriptions can be rather more prosaic than poetic, smacking of game mechanics:
"The necrotic energy, clearly some soul-draining attack..." (pg. 191)
or
"Amazing things, sunrods, he thought... a minor magic item, available in any well-stocked general store." (pg. 121)
Making magic items so freely available demystifies them and reduces them to the level of the mundane in my mind.

But I guess that's a trait of this modern Dungeons & Dragons world that my old school sensibilities are never going to grok. For instance the seeming abundance of "teleportation circles" in ancient ruins just made me think of Star Trek!

The Mark Of Nerath involves the discovery by neophyte village priest Falon of Nenlast that he is heir to the lost empire of Nerath, while simultaneously the undead former emperor-tyrant of said empire, Magroth, has struck a deal with the demon Orcus to restore his empire.

Taking breathless pacing to almost comedic levels, the book's multiple core characters don't seem to be able to go five paces without running into their next combat encounter.

Combine this with the apparent closeness of all the adventure hot spots on the book's map (it covers an area not much bigger than 100 miles by 150 miles, sprinkled with multiple named locations including dungeons of various sizes, a necropolis, ruined manors etc) and you get the impression that The Nentir Vale is a very dangerous and violent place to live.

The story is woven from multiple plot threads that gradually intertwine as various quests begin to overlap.

We have:
  • a dragon and his kobold minions;
  • a lich and his death-knight sidekick;
  • a mysterious demon; and
  • the disparate members of the central party, who all start off in smaller groupings and only really come together well-over half way through the novel.

The core adventurers are a very egalitarian bunch, pretty much covering the main archetypes (and stereotypes) of 4th Edition - a dragaonborn paladin, an eladrin wizard, a tiefling warlock, a human cleric, and a halfling rogue as well as dwarf, human and revenant fighters to bulk out their numbers.

Sadly, Falon, our titual hero (who bears 'The Mark Of Nerath') is a bit of a bland, wet-blanket.

Whiny, naive, reluctant hero from a small, isolated community, who inherits a magic sword to help him fulfill his empire-related destiny; remind you of anyone? Luke Skywalker, perhaps?

However - as is often the case - the most interesting and rounded characters are those on the side of evil, particularly Kalaban The Death-Knight, the lich Magroth The Mad and the Nu Alin the demon.

A surfeit of characters also means there's the possibly of forgetting exactly who's who, but while I don't know what JRR Tolkien would make of the adrenaline-junkie halfling Uldane, that's a character that comes into its own towards the book's final act, when he gets a chance to show off his roguish prowess.

Uldane is also responsible for one of the funniest moments in the book - when he thinks a spinning blade trap would slice through him like a hot knife through butter... and it just makes him feel hungry. I had a Homer Simpson flash when I reached that moment: mmmmmmm, butter!

The sundry storylines eventually come together under Thunderspire Mountain (or module H2 as it is better known) and the book is peppered with colourful nuggets of lore about the Nentir Vale, its places and history that are fascinating in their own right but no doubt are more meaningful to hardcore 4e roleplayers using the system's primary high fantasy setting.

The Mark Of Nerath is an enjoyable romp through the Nentir Vale, despite occasionally reading like a well-written 'actual play report' from a dream D&D game, but is largely preaching to the choir.

I can't see anyone reading this who hasn't already drank the Kool-Aid. It certainly isn't going to hook any casual fantasy novel-reading types into playing the world's most popular role-playing game unless they were already aware of it.

That said, I'm looking forward to Alex Irvine's The Seal Of Karga Kul (due out in early December) which I'm presuming is possibly a sequel of some kind, even though it appears to feature a new cast of characters.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Fourth Ed - Questions, Questions, Questions...

Say, for sake of an argument, I do decide to go down this 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons route, I still have some concerns and questions I'd like to share with the rest of the blogosphere...

(1) Time: As has been noted elsewhere, for various reasons, my gaming group, The Tuesday Knights, only meets once a month for two-and-a-half to three hours of gaming.

When we played Labyrinth Lord and Castles & Crusades, this was enough time to whip through quite a lot of a dungeons level and several combats.

Is this enough time, though, to do anything meaningful in 4th Edition? Or will it take us several years to finish, for instance, Keep On The Shadowfell?

(2) Online Component: Is it absolutely necessary to subscribe to D&D Insider? What do you lose out on if you don't; is it very difficult, for instance, to design your own adventures without it?

(3) Cards, Counters & Miniatures: While I love the idea of physical, tabletop elements such as these, again, are they totally necessary for the game?

Couldn't it become incredibly expensive to track down all the specific miniatures you need for a certain dungeon (especially if you are, frustratingly, having to buy 'blind' packs with no guarantee of getting the figures you actually need?)

Is every single power/ability/spell etc available in card form for both the players and Dungeon Master to have to hand? This last 'innovation' is one I'm particularly fond of - being a person cursed with a poor memory for statistics etc - I welcome the chance to have a hand of cards telling me everything my character can do and what effects it will have.

(4) Minimum Investment: What is the bare minimum of core books that a Dungeon Master needs to run 4th Edition smoothly, especially if his players have no access to the Internet at the table?

(5) Paragon Paths: I've seen mention of so-called Paragon Paths for characters to follow once they reach a certain level; what makes these different from Third Edition's Prestige Classes? And then what are Epic Destinies?

(6) Lovecraft: A bit of personal geekiness here, but can anyone point me towards a site or a book which talks, knowledgeably, about using Lovecraftian monsters (and all the sanity-busting side effects that brings with it) in 4th Edition games?

What Are They Trying To Say?

In my quest for information about the latest iteration of Dungeons & Dragons - and hopefully find some local gamers already au fait with the system, or even a gaming store running the Wednesday night "Encounters" programme (which suddenly sounds like a dating service now I say it out loud), I came across the above flyer for an official UK-only D&D newsletter.

Further incentive for signing up - not that I needed any - was the possibility of a free (while stocks last) T-shirt.

Filling in the application form, it asked me to click on a pull-down menu to choose my T-shirt size.

The only choices offered were "large" and "extra-large"...

Is this Wizards' idea of typical European gamer?

FYI: I selected XL - because it's the smallest size of round-neck T-shirt that I can comfortably wear anyway without the T-shirt rubbing on the tracheotomy scar on my throat. It has nothing to do with my beer (and chocolate) belly!

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Random RPG Thought: Cannibalism

"cannibal, n. Man or animal that feeds on his own species."
- The Pocket Oxford Dictionary, Fifth Edition, 1976

One of the quirky USPs of the Dungeons & Dragon's setting Dark Sun has always been its quirky, Tolkien-baiting "cannibal halflings".

"In the Dark Sun setting, halflings are the oldest race on Athas. Most of them became barbaric cannibals, while a handful of them inhabited the Pristine Tower"

Except, of course, they're not necessarily cannibals. Unless they happen to capture some other halflings. They're flesh eaters. Like most (normal) people - except they are consuming the flesh of a species not considered acceptable by our social mores.

However, particularly in gaming, there has been a general misappropriation of the word to mean a "creature that eats the flesh of any of the 'core races'".

This is, of course, incorrect - by the dictionary definition of the word, cannibal.

To the halflings the flesh or a man, an elf or a dwarf is just the same as beef or chicken. It's only if they consume a fellow halfling that it becomes cannibalism.

I've always liked the idea of using flesh-eating monsters or races in my games (especially after enduring the nauseating Cannibal Holocaust) because it adds an extra level of creepy connectivity between the player and his or her character.

As well as being brutally symbolic of the collapse of recognisable civilisation, it's also psychologically a worse threat to the characters than simple death by sword or claw.

And reduces the chances of a raise dead/resurrection/reincarnation spell... if there's nothing left of the body... or just giblets!

Quick Poll: What Should I Read Next?

Nearing the end of Bill Slavicsek's The Mark Of Nerath (look for my review later this week) and can't decide what to read next.

There are a number of options and so I'm going to let you guys and gals make my decision for me.

The titles in my "to be read" pile are listed below. For once I won't be providing links (for more information) because I'm hoping you'll only vote for titles you've read anyway or have an educated opinion on!

So get clicking in the poll over in the right hand column of HeroPress.

The options:
  • Elminster Must Die! (Ed Greenwood)
  • Elminster in Hell (Ed Greenwood)
  • Homeland (RA Salvatore - the first Legend of Drizzt book)

[Will it matter with these that I've never read a Forgotten Realms book or ever gamed in the Realms?]
  • The Tainted Sword (DJ Heinrich - an old D&D novel, The Penhaligon Trilogy)
  • Witch World (Andre Norton)
  • Werenight (Eric Iverson - aka Harry Turtledove - sequel to Wereblood which I reread earlier this year)
  • Down Among The Dead Men (Simon R Green - the 'wild card' as I know nothing about this and picked it up on a whim in a charity shop)

The poll closes at 7am GMT, Wednesday, September 1.

Comments and critiques are always welcome (and suggestions for future reading as well, of course).

My Life And Roleplaying: "I'd Rather Be Killing Monsters..."


HeroPress gaming fun may be brought to you by the number "4" and the letter "e" in the near future.

I'm looking to share this belated-bandwagon-jumping goodness with The Tuesday Knights next year (once I am confident that I know the system and if it feels right).

As much as my roots and soul exist in the 'old school' of the original incarnation, and the various retro-clones that have been birthed in the last few years, I can't help but be drawn in by the shiny goodness of Wizards' latest releases.

I'm hoping that my experience with this 'new' game will be informed by my old school leanings (I'm planning to attend a launch event in Gravesend next month), but I also want to feel like I'm moving forward and learning new things (as I hack and slash my way through the dungeon).

It's as much a practical decision as anything else.

The Tuesday Knights stand me in good stead for a monthly game, but my efforts to make our meetings more frequent met with great resistance (something about people having 'lives'...) and, as I discovered when I ran Labyrinth Lord for them, a couple of hours every month isn't enough time to really get your teeth into a campaign. Especially when it's "old school" and the characters have a tendency to die if a random giant rat sneezes on them.

Now, I'm just spitballing here, but I have a theory that while the Grand Old Masters (Gary, Dave, Rob etc) may not have intended this to be the way their game was played, this conceit of starting characters effectively as established heroes is more on a level with how they actually played it "back in the day".

I mean, does anyone think that such legendary characters as Bigby, Tenser, Mordenkainen, Erac's Cousin and Robilar ever dared the ruins of Greyhawk with just 1d6 hit points to their name or a single spell in their spell book? (see update, below)

---------""---------

Ironically it was news of the launch of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons that prompted me to talk to Steve, Pete, Nick and Clare into transforming our regular monthly games of Formula De into a role-playing group.

As it happened I got cold feet about running an entirely new system - having not gamed properly for 10 or 20 years at that time - and so I heavily houseruled Castles & Crusades (which seemed like a happy medium at the time) and launched The Tuesday Knights into Tekralh.

The problem also with meeting just monthly is it leaves me open to the infamous Gamer ADD and I'm always thinking of the "next big game" - not necessarily just the next episode of the current campaign, but a whole new campaign (and usually a new system) that I'd be running later.

Perhaps this latest fascination with 4th Edition is simply another phase of my ADD, but it has a lot of facets that make it seem more likely to stick around for a while.

Some superficial - for instance, I grok all the card elements, the large maps, the miniatures and tokens (which I know a lot of old schoolers don't) and the books are gorgeous (conversely, I never liked the look of the Third Edition books or the artwork; a lot of it was too ugly for my tastes) - but a lot comes back to the practicality I mentioned above.

Unlike it seems in American cities, gamers are as rare as hens' teeth round this neck of South East England. Sadly, when they were more common - during my childhood - I didn't take advantage of this resource and make the networks of friends and contacts in the hobby that might have stood me in good stead.

The fact is I don't get to game anywhere near as often as I would like; and I have always loved the ethos of "Dungeons & Dragons" - explore underground caves, kill things, take their treasure - and I strongly believe that my best chance of encountering more gamers is to concentrate on the most popular game and genre.

---------""---------

The one phrase that has stuck with me throughout my gaming life is: "I'd rather be killing monsters".

I've had some amazing role-playing experiences that didn't involve bashing strange beasties or knocking the snot out of orcs, but if I had to choose one style of gaming to play exclusively it would be one that involved swinging swords, swashing buckles and slaying dragons.

So how does all this tie in with what I was saying a few weeks ago about "my plans"?

The simple answer is that I'd originally thought of creating a wacky, swords & planets, retro sci-fi game using my fantastic GAFDOZ miniatures.

But now, I've split my "wargaming" back off from the my "roleplaying" (at least for the moment) and will to continue to focus my metal mini buying on retro sci-fi (no rules system decided on yet) while my roleplaying veers towards Dungeons & Dragons (possibly 4th Ed).

As I said above, I've already been invited to this Essentials Red Box launch event in Gravesend (having had to pass on a Dark Sun event because it clashed with a planned holiday).

I'm hoping this introduction to actually playing 4th Edition (rather than just reading about it) will open a new chapter of my gaming biography. Even if it just makes me decide that 4th Edition isn't the way to go...

UPDATE (August 29, 10pm): Rob Kuntz just emailed me re: my incorrect assumption about the legendary characters in the Original Campaign. "Every character 1972 onward started as 1st level, Tim. Think about it in context even: we were play-testing a new game," he said.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Dreams And Aspirations...

No matter how much effort I spend getting my gamesroom shipshape I know it's never going to be as cool as the "ultimate Dungeons And Dragons gamesroom" of Devon and Shawn Hibbs, of Indianapolis.

I know these pictures did the Interweb rounds last year, but they deserve revisiting... often; even if only to give all us other geeks something to aim for.

And as if portcullises, props from the first Dungeons & Dragons movie, shelf-upon-shelf of D&D box sets and books, skulls, swords, fancy artwork, stained glass windows and faux stonework walls weren't enough to fuel our envy, over at The Acaeum (the Dungeons & Dragons Collecting Forums), Devon explained, back in 2009:

I have been working on and off for about 2 years building our 'D&D ROOM' to hold most of our collection and give us a cool place to play. I did 99.9 per cent of the work myself with just a bit of help in the attic from my brother Shawn. All lighting is controlled by the DM via a dimmer/control box mounted under the table. When you walk in the lights automatically come on via a contactor mounted in the closet. There is also hidden strobe and fog machine for effects. I also mounted speakers in the beams and have a sound system in the closet.

The brothers' room also features in issue five of Big Iron Vault magazine, which goes into great detail on the behind-the-scenes history of this mind-blowing project.

Coincidentally, the brothers also trade as Die Cast Games, producers of the slightly controversial old school module TSR1-INSIDIOUS. Devon is interviewed about this over on RPG Blog II.

Fleamarket Friday: Now I Feel Old...

I was talking to my darling wife yesterday about my 'holy grail' of old Dungeons & Dragons books (as you do) - the elusive classic Booty And The Beasts from 1979 and she reminded me that that was the year she was born!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

If You're Not On The List...


Everything always comes down to "lists" with me, especially when I'm trying to streamline my life, get organised and focused.

And so I have drawn up my five point inclusion list of the broad areas I'm looking to filter my interests into (with an overriding theme, that allows for more flexibility, of "fighting monsters" - a key theme that I look for in books, films, comics and games):

  • Dungeons & Dragons
  • Star Wars
  • Superheroes
  • Big Monsters
  • Zombies
Let's see how that works out for starters...

Moby Dick... With A Dragon!



"Age of the Dragons is an adaptation of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick. Set in a medieval realm where Captain Ahab and crew hunt dragons for the vitriol that powers their world, Ishmael, a charismatic harpooner joins their quest. Ahab's adopted daughter Rachel, beautiful and tough, runs the hunting vessel.

"Ahab's obsession is to seek revenge on a great "White Dragon" that slaughtered his family when he was young and left his body scarred and mauled, drives the crew deeper into the heart of darkness. In the White Dragon's lair Ahab's secrets are revealed and Rachel must choose between following him on his dark quest or escaping to a new life with Ishmael.
"

Age of The Dragons has Danny Glover staring as Ahab in this wonderfully imaginative reworking of Moby Dick (complete with all the original character names), with the great white whale recast as a dragon.

Sadly release details, at present, are vague-to-non-existent; so I rather suspect that this Dungeons & Dragons-inspiring wonderment will go direct to DVD (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course!).

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Monkey House Wins Monthly Lulu Sales Contest!

In July, Monkey House Games released print editions of Villains & Vigilantes 2.1 and Intercrime: Hostile Takeover for V&V 2.1 through thru Lulu, the Internet’s premiere online open publisher.

Now, at the conclusion of its first month on Lulu, Monkey House Games has been declared the winner of Lulu’s July’s Sales Contest. Lulu lists the number one selling item in the contest as Intercrime: Hostile Takeover for V&V2.1.

“We just wanted to take this opportunity to express our profound gratitude to our players for lifting us up yet again!” said Monkey House Games co-founder Jack Herman.

“This is quite an honor!” added co-founder Jeff Dee. “Especially, for a game that has been absent from the marketplace for two decades, coming from a company that has only been in existence for two months… This is a truly testament to the best and most loyal players in all of gaming!”

Villains & Vigilantes 2.1 is also still in the Top Ten on the RPGnow.com Hottest Items List, and the Top Ten of the Hottest Small Press List at DriveThruRPG.com.

Visit the Monkey House Games Store at Lulu to purchase book editions of V&V 2.1 material: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/monkeyhousegames

See the results of Lulu’s July Sales Contest here: http://www.lulu.com/author_contest/winners/

Visit the Monkey House Games Store at RPGnow to purchase downloadable V&V2.1 material: http://www.rpgnow.com/index.php?manufacturers_id=3246

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Second Supergirl Sunday...

After the enormous popularity of our previous Supergirl Sunday, and to commemorate the end of the latest Saturday Morning Matinee cartoon - Kara And The Chronicles Of Krypton - we present a second, and considerably smaller, round-up of sweet lasses cosplaying as Supergirl.

The first picture (above), of The Big Bang Theory's Kaley Cuoco, makes the price of admission worthwhile on its own...

The last three pictures were kindly 'donated' by The Irredeemable Shag, of Once Upon A Geek, from his Dragon*Con Flickr feed.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Kara And The Chronicles Of Krypton: Destiny...

Ladies & Gentlemen, Those About To Die Salute You...

Posting has been getting a bit slack round here of late (as 'promised'), but trust me when I say things are "happening behind the scenes".

However, my lack of regular posts hasn't discouraged new recruits from signing on to the HeroPress superteam, and so I ask you to welcome:

* James of The Underdark Gazette (an awesome OSR roleplaying news blog)

Friday, 20 August 2010

Review Round-Up: Centurion, Dog The Bounty Hunter, Clash Of The Titans

Centurion (2010): Heroic Roman soldier Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) finds himself lost behind Pictish enemy lines in the north of Britain and in charge of a handful of survivors of the legendary Ninth Legion.

The Legion was slaughtered after being led into a trap by traitorous, mute scout Etain (the striking Olga Kurylenko of Quantum Of Solace).

In trying to rescue their kidnapped General (Dominic West), the stragglers accidentally kill the son of Pict warlord Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen) who sends Etain and his men on a blood feud to hunt down and kill the Romans.

Written and directed by Neil Marshall (who also gave us such classics as Dog Soldiers and Doomsday) Centurion is a testosterone-fueled Boys Own adventure, a brutal game of cat-and-mouse through the snowy wilderness as the escapees (who count Doctor Who veterans Noel Clarke and David Morrissey among their number) are slowly worn down and forced to make a final stand.

Bloody, gruesome and foul-mouthed, there are definite similarities to Spartacus: Blood And Sand here - although bereft of the raunchiness - but the story lacks the intricacies and deviousness of that television show.

As a crowd-pleasing 90-minute diversion, Centurion is good stuff, with its plot twists and turns towards the end adding a degree of mischievousness to the otherwise straight-forward action-adventure.

Where Mercy Is Shown, Mercy Is Given: After his first generally enjoyable book, You Can Run But You Can't Hide, Duane 'Dog' Chapman's sequel is unfortunately more of the same, but with even less juicy 'bounty hunting' excitement than the original.

Coming out so soon after his first autobiography, Where Mercy Is Shown... appears to be primarily just another weapon in his public relations arsenal to counter the bad press he attracted when his wayward son Tucker recorded him using a racial slur (the 'N' word) and sold the tape to the National Enquirer.

At least a third of the book is devoted directly to this incident and Dog's various convoluted justifications as to why he was 'allowed' to use that word.

At times, in an almost comical fashion, Dog's efforts to establish his 'roots' almost paint him - accidentally - as a Messianic figure. This certainly isn't what he intended, and he has never claimed such nonsense, but his efforts to dig himself out of the hole his son put him in are so heartfelt and so extreme that - like the picture on the book's cover - he sometimes presents himself bathed in the light of God.

What could have been summed up in a few pages takes almost a hundred and is referenced several times even after that matter has died down and the Dog has paid his dues and made amends for his mistake.

The thing is, if you can look past all the repetition and religious hokem (how come when some people say God speaks directly to them it's acceptable, while others are very quickly put on medication or locked away for hearing voices?), he does come across as a very sincere person, with some very interesting thoughts on the justice system. Slipped in the middle of the book is a half-a-chapter on his plans to reform the penal system and to me they seemed very intelligent.

Perhaps some would consider it naive, but I would rather have read a book on his ideas like this - peppered with examples from his bounty hunting, of course.

There are a couple of 'interludes' thrown with tales of hunts from his early days as a bounty hunter, which are always a fun read - in the same way that the best bits of his TV show are always the chases.

If only his co-author, Laura Morton, could have curtailed his ramblings and kept the Dog on a leash, this could have been an interesting and even inspirational book; but as it is you find yourself wondering what purpose this was really meant to serve.

Clash Of The Titans (2010): The 1980's original of Clash Of The Titans may not have been one of the strongest of Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion sword-and-sandal epics, but at least it had charm and excitement going for it.

The 2010 remake is sadly lacking in both of those areas, with the reworked storyline transforming a classic heroes journey into a collection of random happenstance with no overriding logic.

Sticking to the same basic plot - Perseus has to kill the Medusa and use her head to petrify the unstoppable kraken before it eats the princess and trashes the city - this version manages to hit a few key beats (e.g. the Pegasus, the Stygian witches and Medusa), but then throws out so much from the original that worked well (Calibos, for instance, is reduced to just another monster to be slain).

Even ignoring the blatant jibe at the original - when Perseus is told to discard Bubo the clockwork owl - Clash Of The Titans tries too hard to "be different" and ends up being drab and unengaging.

As Perseus, Sam Worthington again demonstrates the total lack of charisma he showed in Avatar and while much of the CGI is quite impressive, there seems little attempt at maintaining an Ancient Greek verisimilitude (who, for instance, were the strange rock creatures riding the giant scorpions and why did one join Perseus' group for no apparent reason?).

With the filmmakers almost total disregard - bordering on contempt - for the source material, it would have only taken a bit of a nudge further and this could easily have become just another Lord Of The Rings-aping fantasy film, devoid of any Ancient Grecian trappings.

Fleamarket Friday: I Have Been Seduced By The Dark Side...

I fear I might be about to be stripped of my 'old school' credentials, but I'm really drawn to this latest iteration of Dungeons & Dragons - Wizards of The Coast's Essentials line, a streamlined on-ramp for newcomers to their 4th Edition of the venerable game.

I wants it, my preciousssssss, I wants it...




And there's lovely boardgames too!

So much shiny goodness...
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