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Sunday, June 29, 2014

In Defense of the Maligned- Part I, the Unearthed Arcana

Part I deals with the much maligned Unearthed Arcana. Part II will be about the poor Oriental Adventures (that rocks too).

To start out, about the Unearthed Arcana? (UA for short) I've never understood the "hate".

There I said it. I'm an unabashed fan of the Unearthed Arcana, but not in a weird Bob's sort of way from the movie Office Space. The book is roundly regaled in some quarters, especially one one gets into the OSR ("Old School Renaissance") weeds. I get the impression that some would prefer to imagine that its not really Gary Gygax's name on the front cover, or that it is not his rules, but it is.

Some feel that the UA lead to the "terrible" 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but to me I think that's a stretch to be quite honest. If anything it was showing its hand towards the route that Gary was going with his version of 2nd Edition AD&D. Read the link, it is an excellent summation of the various clues that Gygax left us as to where he was going, and a direction that would have left many of the various "hard core gamers" (read: grognards) with their collective man panties in a twist. I'm not going rehash all that as its not going to lead to anything productive.

UA lead to a new realm of possibilities, it also changed my perception of fighters. As presented in the 1st edition Players Handbook,  Fighters are definitely milquetoast. Rather then being the inspiring everyman a fighter got some umph, especially when one considers how much magic users outshine fighters at higher levels. That's not say its perfect, bow specialization being the most egregious. Again all good as I've always liked fighters and might very well be my favorite class to play. Taken as a whole, the book has some bad parts, some middling and quite a few good ones. To me the good parts more then balance out the bad ones, even the crap spells for clerics and druids, of which many I've never seen used in an actual game.

When taken in the historical perspective some people dislike it because of the politics of the time meaning that the book was rushed out the door as TSR was experiencing its first cash crunch because of the mismanagement of the Blumes. Or because of the really crappy binding of the book itself. I'm lucky, my original was bound well, its since gone missing, any that I've purchased off of FleaBay have been the later printings with the better bindings. As far as the out the door to save the company? Good because it led to second edition which I like.

Taken all in all the UA dove tails nicely with what I consider AD&D. I use the 2nd edition rules but having come into the game during the later stages of 1st edition's run as I outlined here, I use a variety of sources from the time-frame of 1984-1989, particularly Dragon. Myself and others who play as I do are what I call "Hybrid Players" As I have gotten older I've rejected the idea of kits and a lot of the additional books. Some like Ships and the Sea or Arms and Equipment are handy, the various Complete guides less so, but not for the reasons most gamers do. To me kits speaks to larger market forces. At the time 1st edition WFRP was gaming steam in the US and it had a boatload of classes. I think it was TSR's response to WFRP. I have no data to back up this claim but it makes logical sense. I've used them in play before and at the time they were fun, no regrets there, but as time has gone buy I've paired the choices of the players back to the 2nd edition Players Handbook and use NPC classes for various NPCs.

For me in closing: The UA holds a special place for me as it represents the first Advanced Dungeons and Dragons hard cover that I bought for myself (sent away for it via mail!) Prior to that all I had were the Basic and Expert books and hand me downs from my older brothers. It probably explains why early on I played a inordinate amount of cavaliers too. But hey cavaliers* aren't so bad, they nerf illusionists in 1st edition splendidly. That can't be all bad, well if they could squeeze in a special ability to slay gnomes too, I'd be OK with that.

* I've pretty much solidified on 2nd Edition AD&D when I game master (sorry Randolph) but I do include options for my current campaign world. Instead of using the UA one I use the Corrected Cavalier" as well as the same issue with the article "Tracking down the Barbarians" from Dragon #148 Both work better then the UA versions of either class. In fact its a great example of how things can be lifted as is from 1st edition and place it in your 2nd edition games. Oh yeah almost forgot, I also allow for the 1st edition assassin to be used pretty much as is, it works and I've had little to no problems with the class as is, aside from the "High Gygaxian Prose"...

Friday, June 27, 2014

Review of the Boot Hill Module BH4- Burned Bush Wells

BH4- Burned Bush Wells
The 4th module of the Boot Hill series certainly has a weird name, at least to me that is. Much like the other Boot Hill modules I did not play Boot Hill back in the day as we were not into Westerns at that time (a shame) and most of our time was spent playing D&D and AD&D. For my own part I used to watch a lot of westerns with my father, but drifted away. A few years back I started watching them again and got hooked on Boot Hill. In any event BH4- Burned Bush Wells is a module produced by Jeff Grubb with some input from Allen Hammock and Brian Blume. 

BH4- Burned Bush Wells is a "later" Boot Hill module. I say "latter" in that the graphic design has changed compared to the earlier modules and its apparent that at the time TSR was focusing on D&D and AD&D, specifically as their bread winners. Perhaps the power struggle at the time of the mid 80s also accounted for this. Perhaps there were not enough folks that were that interested in working on the line, Donald Kaye's untimely death not helping matters in terms of Boot Hill overall? Just speculation on my part. In any event it would be the second to last Boot Hill module and akin to the others before it. Weird to think that it was released in 1983, with only Range War to follow in 1984. From BH1- Mad Mesa to Range Wars it was span of 1981-1984 for the entire run of modules.

The cover and interior art
Elmore seems to be a polarizing figure for grognards in terms of TSR era art. In the realm of Boot Hill (and others) I think his stuff is very good and it certain captures the feel well, certainly for a western RPG. Another thing to think about: the American West isn't usually depicted in the winter, whether its a movie or art; usually its baking, scorching hot deserts and cactus. I also like to point out the crop with the snow on the bottom right corner outside the frame. In short, I like it. One thing that detracts is some of his art in the interior. Not that its not done well but a lot of his characters tend to look alike, a certain feel to them if you will. Perhaps this is where people object?

Like BH2 The GM is presented with an outline of events and like a movie certain scenes can happen at the appropriate place and time. As I've discussed with those of like minds over at the OD&D Pro Boards, its not so much as a "sand "box" but more like a "jungle gym". In so much that the idea is to provide a framework for the players but not have it be rail-roady  This is a definite area where all of the Boot Hill modules struggle. A western has a number of self compartmentalized scenes, that tell the overall story leading invariability to the showdown. This works if it follows a movie script rather then fantasy sword and sorcery with six-guns and Winchesters instead.

One of the things that stands out with this and and every other Boot Hill module is the vast numbers of NPCs mentioned. In most cases I can't see this ever being terribly important. The local saloon keeper? Yes, we need to know his name, that of all of his kids? Probably not needed.

The main action takes place in the eponymous town of Burned Bush Wells in the dead of winter. As noted in the text of the module winter is a lean time in the west and the wolves are hungry. As Burned Brush Wells has a number of cattle concerns in the area they predators are naturally a problem to be dealt with. Rules are giving for hunting or trapping the critters along with the ubiquitous rules for animals that seem to make an appearance in every Boot Hill module.

The main mover and shaker is Lyle Underway the wealthiest man in town and with the most varied interests of the merchants/businessmen. He takes the role of the thoroughly unlikable power hungry businessman. He is applying pressure to the smaller businesses and cattle outfits in an effort to drive them out of business. The smaller businesses unite to for the BBBC (Burned Brush Business Council)* and retaliate over a deed, specifically the Waterhouse deed as it relates teh the Old Stage building. Underhay wants it, the PCs mostly likely end up with it and the thus a conflict is born. This is a classic western story done well in the form of an RPG. The hitch is the need to find out the former owner of the Waterhouse deed to make the transfer legal, thus foiling Underway's plans. Of course a man as powerful as Underhay is not going to let it just go at that owing to the fact that he has the law of the town in his pocket.

* The BBBC is a well thought idea that echos real like events like the Johnson County War in Wyoming that eventually drew in the US Cavalry. On one side was the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (the WSGA) and the other the smaller Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers' Association (NWFSGA). Or another parallel is the Lincoln County War of which Billy the Kid was part of.

Thus the most likely turn of events is that the PCs head out on the road to Gordon where events direct them. The overland trek is a realistic one looking at the random encounter table. Having just watched Will Penny recently I like the inclusion of Line Rider as a possible encounter (a very minor detail in the module to be sure but it shows that author had a good grasp of his content).

Another thing I like about the module is the inclusion of a ghost town. The town in question is Gordon and abandoned mining town that is largely just that: abandoned. The scenes that can take place there struck me as a very cool setting for a confrontation.  Ghost towns abound in the west in real life but we have the hindsight of nearly a century and a half of space. In the game a town only recently abandoned lends an air of the campaign having been "lived in". Looking at other western themed RPGs, especially the ones of the last 20 years we get horror infused ones owing to Deadlands inspired games.

A minor point is the maps. In each case they are clear and concise, in short well done. They fit the style of the maps that appeared for various publications by TSR at the time as well as examples that appeared in Dragon a bit later.

Much like many of the modules before it BH4 is somewhat of a script, series of events rather then the dungeon crawls most are used to. I know I sound like a broken record in my reviews of the Boot Hill modules but it is something that they never addressed all that well.

By this stage in the run of TSR the focus was clearly on D&D. When one adds the looming war between the Blumes and Gygax its probably no wonder that the secondary games of TSR (Gamma World, Top Secret, Gangbusters, etc) took a back seat or dwindled on the vine. Boot Hill was a solid game and its miniature quasi-wargame roots show in the rules. It wasn't until 3rd edition Boot Hill that it became more of a role-playing game but by that point the ship had largely sealed.

The "cut scenes" (Labeled I-IX) in town as it were are well done. But its the section Waterhouse's Deed that I like very much the tramping up the stairs via the law to meet Underhay that sets in motion the events of the Waterhouse deed. I can easily picture this very event in plenty of westerns: the evil land tycoon/robber baron, etc confronts the hero(es) and tells them to clear out of to hand over what he wants, they refuse and the battle is on or at least coming to a head very soon..

As and aside by the time 3rd edition came out in 1990 my High School gaming group and I were not playing all that much in terms of AD&D let alone any other TSR games other then some side games of Marvel Super Heroes. In a sense for me, Boot Hill wasn't even a thought as I can't remember any of my high school group owning it let alone wanting to play it.

Next up
In my queue to review in the not too distant future is review of the elusive BH5- Range War!
I say elusive as it has been eluding me on eBay (its not worth $75 dollars folks) I should take comfort some wags on Amazon think people are going to pay $400 for it...

Lastly, in order, to date here are my reviews of Boot Hill materials
Boot Hill itself
BH1- Mad Mesa
BH2- The Lost Conquistador Mine
BH3- Bullets and Balllots

On a completely personal note I bid a fond farewell to Eli Wallach who starred in incredicble westerns like "The Good, The Bad, the Ugly" and "the Magnificent Seven" to name but a few.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

From Best to Worst the Jedi duels, Stars Wars Episodes I through VI

In light of the theme of my blog I figured it was time to speak to Star Wars.

Now with Disney and JJ Abrams taking the helm of Disney's new intellectual property toy its time to consider the previous movies before we get to Episode VII next year. Rather then rehash which is the best movie or "why the prequels" suck (to some people) for the five billionth time on the web I'm going to focus on one the things I (almost) always enjoy in the movies the Jedi Duels. By focusing on this one aspect the order of best to worst movie shifts quite a bit in my opinion, you may disagree but hey, its my blog.
If you disagree give good reasons as to why as this disucssion can get heated across the net, has been that way for years.

If one were to consider Best to Worst in terms of the movies my list would look like:
  1. Empire Strikes Back
  2. Star Wars
  3. Revenge of the Sith
  4. Phantom Menace
  5. Attack of the Clones
  6. Return of the Jedi
Some people will look at this and say "Whaaaaattttt???" Why so low for Jedi? Phantom that high? For me the dividing line is going from #3 to #4. Sure Phantom sucks in parts, it also has the best  Jedi Duel of them all.

Why does Return of the Jedi rank so low for me? After all it does have Leia in the gold bikini, the Sarlac pit, a some other good points. It also has one very crappy as reason that drags it down... EWOKS! Seriously George call it like it is $$$$$$. The Ewoks completely wrecked Jedi for me. Reminds me of a joke: "You're stuck in a turbo lift with the Emperor, Darth Vader and a Ewok and have a blaster with only two shots left, what do you do? Shoot the Ewok... twice, just to be sure."

Now onto the main point for me the Jedi fights are the highlights of the movies and when peopel bang on Phantom Menace I'm in agreement the movie is meh at best and suck badly because of Jar Jar Binks, the Midoclorian crap and a 9-year who will be Darth Vader some day shouting "Yippie"... pass the anti-acids. 

At the same time out of all the movies it has the best Jedi fights hands down so here goes my list bases on Best Jedi duel:

  1. Phantom Menace (1999)- The fight between Obi Wan and Qui Gon vs. Darth Maul is the best of the series. The fact that martial artist Ray Park plays Darth Maul and choreographed the fight is the primary reason why its good. The music, Duel of Fates is epic as well.
  2. Revenge of the Sith (2005) The finale as it were, Obi Wan vs Darth Vader. The best part to me is the titanic wielding of the force where each tries to force push the other and are evenly matched and they hurl away from each other. Battle of the Heroes for the musical backdrop is powerful and a great piece of music.
  3. Empire Strikes Back (1980) Luke is still not quite ready and in context is certainly better then the worst (see below). The great thing about this battle is the movement and that it rages all over Cloud City it seems. Obviously the "big reveal" is what makes it memorable.
  4. Return of the Jedi (1983) Moody, dark and light contrast and this time around Luke stronger then Vader. In a way he is toying with him trying to tempt him back to the Light side of the Force. His rage at the end and his realization that path he is heading down is what makes it great. 
  5. Attack of the Clones (2002) Ugh Yoda and the CGI animators! I've said it before I'll say it again. Had the made Yoda move and fight similar to Shifu in King Fu Panada they would be onto something. Shifu is much smaller then his opponents but moves in a belieavle manner and is under control. That's not what we get in Attack of the Clones. The CGI animators wanted to show us what they could do with their toys and that's what we got. A shuffling, cane walking Yoda flips and shouts all over the place?
  6. Star Wars (1977) There really isn't too much to say with a geriatric Obi Wan "facing off against Darth Vader. I've heard some say because its based on Kendo's formal poses thats why it seems to slow. Slow is an understatement, its a snoozefest. Fortunately its over quickly.
When looked at through this narrow prism as a said the order shifts quite a bit. Revenge of the Sith is a curious case in all of them, to me its such an uneven movie. We know whats coming long before the Emperor unleashes Order 66, and once he does? Its hard to keep watching as the Jedi are cut down across the galaxy. Its Jedi fight is memorable for it because we know that the old Jedi ways are near the end despite Obi Wan winning the duel.

As far as Episode VII? I'm cautiously optimistic that it will be good, it certainly an be worst then the craptastic parts of Return of the Jedi. I'm hopping for less kid driven crap like Ewoks or Jar Jar Binks. As we all know when Lucas' input is limited we get better movies (usually). In terms of the Jedi fights lets hope it's more like Phantom Menace rather then Star Wars which is a weird thing to say at face value.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

"A coward dies many times, the brave only once."

To what do I refer? I'm talking about the excellent movie Guns of the Magnificent Seven. Now, obviously the original is the best of the four movies, but after being let down by the "sequel", Return of the Seven", Guns more then makes up for it in my opinion. Return is basically the first movie
with different actors, done... badly. Guns tells a slightly different story and is much better for it.

Before I go to far here is the order of the movies from best to worst:
1. The Magnificent Seven
2. Guns of the Magnificent Seven
3. The Magnificent Seven Ride
4. Return of the Seven
Now of course people will say the Seven Samurai is THE best, well or course it is, it's the source material, but that's not what the topic of this post is about. So with that side track out of the way...

I'm going to assume if you are reading this you have seen the original Magnificent Seven... and if you haven't go watch it come back here and then read the rest of this post! Better yet watch Guns of the Magnificent Seven too then come back. 

Ok, you're back?

One downside that starts us off, Yul Bryner is not playing Chris Adams. This time around George Kennedy takes the helm as Chris Adams. While not as slick as Yul Bryner he did make for a great leader of the Seven. At first I thought I wouldn't like his portrayal, but I was pleasantly surprised. While I watching it I didn't see him as Chris Adams as so much as George playing another guy named Chris Adams... If that makes sense. In other words it's a good western and a good actor that stands on their own merits. If it hadn't been part of the Magnificent Seven series it would stand on its own merits as a fine movie.

One area I think that helped rive the story is that in this version the viewer actually cares about the assembled Seven, unlike Return where the viewer is left scratching their heads. I especially like a Joe Don Baker's character Slater as a ex-confederate soldier trying to make a
living in the west while maimed from his wartime service which has caused his life to spiral downwards. He doesn't have too many scenes in the movie, but I found myself wanting more of him on screen.

Monte Markham stars as Vin Tanner, err make that Keno, Chris' right-hand-man in this version of the series. I found myself liking him in this role and I think he did well rather then the ill fit of Robert Fuller as Vinn in Return. Much like the casting of Kennedy it works.

Another point on actors is James Whitmore as Levi Morgan an aging knife thrower/former outlaw who looked old even back in 1969. Most younger people will know him from his role as Brooks in the Shawshank Redemption. 

Rounding out the thoughts on the cast. In a 2 hour-ish movie it's difficult to get to the other characters but they somehow manage to do it with Cassie a black laborer-physical dynamo, Max the young Mexican (taking over the role/spot of Chico) and PJ the enigmatic clad in black gunfighter who has the least amount of screen time of all of them.

Without spoiling it too much let's say the story is a departure from the normal fair in regards the theme of the Magnificent Seven of helping innocent villagers. The assembly of the seven goes quickly as we hop from member to member without any lag in the story. The use of the Mexican federal military rather then raiding outlaws is a welcome change.Its also cool anytime a western has a Gaitling gun which the bad guys do.

In closing, as the title of the post suggests, the best line is delivered at the very end by George Kennedy in Spanish to a a very young Reni Santoni. What makes this great is that his character Max repeats in back in English (which is a twist on the way his character communicates through the movie; struggling to find the right words in English and reverting to Spanish):

  "A coward dies many times, the brave only once."

I give Guns 4 out of 5 stars and if I could, I'd give Return of the Seven zero... 

Lastly on a side note it looks like Denzel Washington is talking about joining a remake of the Magnificent Seven. Woot!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light

The Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light was a cartoon show that ran in the Fall of 1987. It occupies an odd time in my childhood, that is to say not at all. I was 14 almost 15 when it came out. I remember watching it because it was somewhat DD related/inspired, but at the same time it felt awkward watching it. Hey, who wasn't awkward at that age? Despite I will freely admit I saw almost all the episodes. 

Visionaries were somewhat Thundarr like in the world where it takes place was a world were technology had fallen/failed. While not as over the top as Thundarr it was post-technological. It was also a mash up of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table with the main mover and shaker a wizard named Merklynn who was nominally neutral in the dealings between the two factions: the Darkling Lords (obviously evil) led by the knights Darkstorm and Leoric the leader of Spectral Knights (the good guys).

What I think saved me from feeling too weird was the tie into magic, particularly the magical words of power that were invoked via their magic staffs. In the first episode "The Age of Magic Begins" the various knights climb to the top of Iron Mountain in a form of challenge. It is at the end of this episode that each knight gains a magical animal totem that mirrors themselves, Leoric a Lion, Feryl a wolf, Darkstorm a Mollusk, Reekon a lizard, etc. Those knights that do not possess staves gain the ability to power magical power vehicles, obviously a ploy to sell more toys? One upside is the cast of characters is pretty good and each bad guy has a good guy to mirror him/her. In some cases the knights knew each other prior to the age of magic.
Cryotek using his staff

To activate each staff the wielder had to recite a magical verse. Amongst my favorites were:

Cryotek's Staff of Strength - "Three suns aligned pour forth their light and fill the archer's bow with might!"

Witterquick's Staff of Speed - "Sheathe these feet in the driving gale, Make swift these legs o'er land I sail!"

Darkstorm's Staff of Decay "By what creeps, what crawls, by what does not; let all that grows recede and rot!" (Great for a staff of withering)

Lexor's Staff of Invulnerability
"The arrows turn, the swords rebel; let nothing pierce this mortal shell!

Come to think of it these would make great command words, phrases for more then just magical staffs, wands etc if one were so inclined. How about Lexor's for a potion of invulnerability? 

Another use in a a D&D campaign is the idea of the one shot nature of the staves; they required recharging at Iron Mountain. Now this could be a hindrance to a campaign as a whole as players might stay near the place of recharging rather then venture afar. However, if sufficiently powerful the players might husband their resource until the need is great, then head back (thats what I would do). Perhaps they are akin to power in relics/artifacts in AD&D. Its not inconceivable to have say Lexor's staff of invulnerability keep everything out much like a cube of force, can only be used once until its recharged and usable by any class. Possession of such items might bring prestige in said campaign world if the items are well known or perhaps foes seeking to claim or steal it.

In terms of visual style the Visionaries had a very similar look to the other cartoons of the 80s, were the rise of manga was beginning in the USA. Interestingly the series was created by Flint Dille, who met none other then Gary Gygax when Gary was working on the D&D cartoon. This is fateful as Flint is none other then the brother or Lorraine Williams... Any TSR nerd from back in the day can tell you how much she is hated for ousting Gary from TSR. Flint would work for TSR for a time and the rest of his details can be found here. Anyways I digress. 

In a way, Visionaries felt very much like the other cartoons of the 80s, MASK, G.I. Joe, He Man,Thundercats,Transformers etc, a bid to sell toys in the wake of the mega success of Star Wars. Looking back on it the series was a odd bird, it only lasted one season and felt even back then it was a attempt to cash in. It was also a short lived comic book series but I never saw one and was a fairly avid comic reader back then. Maybe that's me looking back on it through hindsight. 

Not that I condone such things but there are places on the web to watch all of the episodes,

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Next Revision of Hurled into Eternity is up and Beta version printed

This post explains why I haven't updated the blog in a few weeks: the first true print out of the rules for Hurled into Eternity, at least in this format. Years ago (as in 15+) when the progenitor to these rules were in its d12 configuration and a traditional fantasy RPG called Quest, I printed sections of it, but never the entire rules themselves.

This is a prototype of the rules. I say prototype loosely here because I'm not sure I'm going to use this styling when it gets ready for a potential kick starter. None-the-less, I printed out two copies at the local Office Max as you can see in color for the covers and the interiors are double sided black and white. Total cost for printing out two copies was under $20 including the color covers.

It weighs in at 78 pages, doubled sided when printed with two more for the covers. All told the entire rule set in terms of page count is 154. Maybe these will be collectors items someday (hah!)

The main purpose of the print out is to help facilitate testing and get a physical copy to make it seem more real. After years of only looking at it in its electronic form its good to finally see a physical manifestation of it. So far it has been very useful as I can reference as I work in the Willmark man cave testing the rules. So far its helped me tweak the rules for the Wild Card System, a bit for the better I hope.

Of course since printing stuff out I've noticed issues with it and changed the Wild Card System to flow better. I think I fixed the obvious problems regarding it. So far gun-fighting is looking very deadly with shotguns being perhaps to much. I'd really like to hear about feedback on the combat sections with the revisions.

Regardless, here is the latest version of the revised rules here.