Sunday, May 24, 2009

Castle of the Mad Archmage May Bonus Release Now Available!

Happy Birthday!

That is, it being my birthday, I hereby present a special bonus May release of Castle of the Mad Archmage. This release introduces Level 6A - The Sub-Labyrinth, and serves as the main point of connection between Levels 6 and 7.

This release also presents the debut of Steve Rubin as proofreader for the work, and I've incorporated his many corrections, inconsistencies, and so forth. Some of the maps also bear the marks of his eagle eyes and tireless zest for detail. He also suggested adding a bit to the overview of the dungeons, and the work as a whole is much better for his contribution. Thanks, Steve.

Here are also corrected versions of the poster maps for Levels 3 and 5, and anew poster for Level 6, for your edification.


Next up, as you can see over to the right, is Level 7: Crypts. This is turning into a really fun level to write, but it's going to take some time to do it right, so this two-fer in May might end up being balanced by no June release. We'll have to see.

Enjoy, and please keep sending in the feedback. It really is appreciated.

PS: I am not sure why the thumbnails of the cover won't upload properly. They should be a cream color, but they insist on uploading as the purple May cover. I'll keep plugging away at it, but the download link itself seems to be pointing to the right place.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What I'm Reading

Is it really possible that I'm still not done with "The Bloody Crown of Conan"? It's been on my "What I'm Reading" list for months, now. I've had other books come and go on the list, and that one just stays and stays. Well, yes, it is. It's the one I have on my nightstand, and for whatever reason I only have the staying power to read a couple of pages before I drift off to the Dreamlands (I take some medication just before bed that knocks me right out). It's like a warm hot toddy that I take only a sip or two from, allowing me to savor it each night. But slooooowly.

But I've also been reading Brian Aldiss' "Starship" and it is not only a terrific book full of all sorts of awesome ideas, but it is so obviously the source of Metamorphosis: Alpha and the TV series "The Starlost", both of which I love to an inordinate degree. There's an entire campaign, right in that small paperback, and the seed of two or three more. I'm burning through this book, and mainly because I have not relegated it to the nightstand.

"The Red Church" is an absolutely fascinating account of magical practices amongst the Amish. Betcha didn't know there was such a thing, did you? Well, the movie "Warlock" aside, there is (and I must, in "Warlock"'s defense, say they got a lot of things really right), and it's a very interesting and curious amalgam of pre-Christian Germanic magical practices, such as assigning dates to the vanquishing of what are obviously frost giants in different guise, and more mainstream Renaissance magical tomes. Absolutely fascinating, and I daresay with a lot there to be mined in terms of FRPG.

And, of course, we have Tolkein's retelling, newly edited and published by his grandson, of the Icelandic saga of Sigurd and Gudrun, which was of course the basis for Wagner's Ring Cycle, amongst countless other adaptations. I've not delved too deeply into it, but man what I've read makes me wish he had taken his hand to a lot more of the primary sources of Germanic literature. The man knew his way around Norse mythology like it was the back of his hand, and it is only dimly reflected in his Middle Earth works. He positively glows when he is retelling the originals in their own milieu.

Anyway, I knew you'd love to know what I was reading in bed, or in the bathroom, or wherever. Damn, I used to get so much more reading done when I lived in Boston, and had to travel everywhere on the T, where I could read as I moved (I still remember reading Phaid the Gambler and Citizen Phaid on such trips!). Now, I have to snatch moments here and there.

Damnit, I want more time to read.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Busy, busy, busy

Please accept my apologies for the relative dearth of posting on the blog as of late. I've got so much going on right now it's hard to squeeze in time to formulate something substantive here. Things I've got on some burner, whether back or front, just at the moment...
  • Greyhawk module lore. Going through the early TSR modules to pluck out and systematize Greyhawk-related lore. The geopolitical implications of some of the more subtle aspects of the Temple of Elemental Evil, for example, or how White Plume Mountain might fit into the interactions of the Bandit Kingdoms and the Shield Lands.
  • Castle of the Mad Archmage. Aside from continuing the regular releases, I'm giving thought to how things will progress once the core levels are complete this year. One idea I had was to offer individual side-levels for sale. You get the core for free, but you pay for the gravy. Thoughts?
  • Castle of the Mad Archmage redux. Something else I am giving very serious thought to giving the work a final scrubbing of all the TSR/WotC trademarks and offering the core levels for sale as a hard copy product. It wouldn't happen until December, and I would still offer the pdf version for free, but for those who want the "mailed out from his living room" magic, it would be there. With large-size poster maps of all the levels, of course; it wouldn't be cheap. More thoughts?
  • My fantasy heartbreaker. A set of books based on the AD&D rules, but incorporating the changes I outlined not too long ago regarding my reconstruction of what Gary would have wanted his own second edition to look like. With the new classes, the monster changes, etc. etc. etc. But with all the retro-clones, old-school-inspired games, and new stuff out there, would anyone really care about such a thing? Do we *need* another old-school game that's not a true emulator?
  • Non-gaming stuff. I try to segregate my religious work from my gaming stuff here, but in terms of workload, it's worth mentioning that I'm in the midst of writing two separate books on Germanic mythology, folklore, and magic. The work comes and goes in spurts, like all the rest, of course. But if I'm working on this, it means I'm not working on the rest.
  • Fiction. I used to be quite the fantasy writer back in my high school and college days. I would dearly love to pick it up again, but time time time time.
Anyway, there it is. If I don't manage to post before then, I hope you all have a great Memorial Day (except you Canadians, to whom I think a belated Happy Victoria Day is in order, and Happy Ascention Day to you in Finland, and for my multitudes of Argentinian readers, a most joyous National Day/Day of the 1810 Revolution).

Friday, May 15, 2009

An Anniversary

On May 15th, 2008, I launched this blog, pretty shakily, looking back on things.

I like the way things have progressed in this first year, and hope to continue with even better material for the edification and enjoyment of my fellow gamers.

One thing I do note-- there are a number of other blogs who also got their start around a year ago. Presumably the death of Gary Gygax led a lot of folks to want to express themselves and share their passion for games. So, in retrospect, perhaps a little good did come of tragedy.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Castle of the Mad Archmage May Release Now Available!

Sweet Suffering Gods of the Suel! It's only the 10th and I already have the May installment of Castle of the Mad Archmage ready for your consumption. How do I *do* it???

Truth to tell, this one was easier to write than it was to map, which is the opposite of how it usually goes. Since this one was the labyrinth, I spent a lot of time making the mazes and such a real nightmare for the PCs, especially those who engage in that pesky hobby known as mapping. But don't take my word for it, read the words of the designer on how this level should play out (I hear he's quite an insightful chap)...

This level is somewhat different from the others that have preceded it, in that it consists of large stretches of empty corridors without too many static encounters (those that do exist are primarily there as the lairs of the creatures met in various random encounters). It is possible, of course, for such a situation to lead to frustration on the part of both the game master and the players, as it might be thought that “corridors are boring”. In this level, the corridors are the main areas; it is essential that the game master roll for random encounters, as these represent the bulk of the threat to be found here. Effective use of random encounters will make or break this level. The inhabitants will be actively hunting the PCs, and the successful game master will be one who effectively conveys the sense of role-reversal, as the PCs are harried by the various inhabitants and find themselves stalked in the endless seemingly-identical passages. Snorts and snorts of pursuing minotaurs and were-boars in the distance, the setting of ambushes by creatures who inflict damage up front and then retreat back into the corridors they know instinctively to wear down their prey, and other tactics should be used to convey the sense that the PCs are in a place where they are not the ones who control when a battle occurs. Remember, those PCs who wish to conduct exhaustive mapping will be moving at 1/10th normal speed, thus increasing the frequency of random encounter checks by a factor of ten. This level also includes several creatures which are explicitly here to demonstrate the wisdom of running away from some encounters.
Add to that a couple of well-known encounters from the original campaign, and this level pretty much wrote itself. 77 pages and 13 MB (actually smaller than the previous installment, because a lot of the hand-drawn maps were replaced by Joe Bardales' classic blue maps, which are smaller in file-size).

Enjoy!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Yes, We Have Maps

My good friend and CotMA cartographer Joe Bardales has chimed in with a Mothers' Day gift for us all. Not only do we have a poster map of Level 4 of the Castle of the Mad Archmage in the traditional blue, but poster maps in an all-new "Undermountain" style for your edification and enjoyment.

Level 4:And again, with the faction colors marked on the map:

Level 3:
And, finally, Level 2:
Please join me in heaping praise upon him for his work. He's bringing this project to life in a way I only imagined.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Film Review: Star Trek

Caution. Here there be spoilers!

I must preface this by saying that I have been a huge Star Trek fan since the tender age of 6. I have complete memories of watching the Animated Series on its first run on NBC in 1973, and thought it was so cool that my favorite show was now a cartoon. So I caught the Trek bug at least as early as 6. Might have been 5. Many's the time I'd watch Trek at 6:00 on channel 11 here in New York, right after Beat the Clock. But I digress. Suffice to say I grew up as a Trek fan, and I am one to this day. I've done the conventions, the clubs, the costumes, the LARP Paintball games, and even the fan-films.

I should also state outright that I am not a fan of "reboots". Planet of the Apes was an appalling dung heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable. Ditto Halloween. Superman Returns sucked rubber baby donkey lungs, too (the last couple films in the series sucked, too, but that doesn't excuse a sucktastic reboot). Batman Begins and Dark Knight broke the cycle, but I'm still leery.

Short version; I don't loathe the new Star Trek, but I sure don't love it.

This is by far not the worst Star Trek film out there. That honor belongs, depending on whether I've had Chinese or Italian for dinner that night, to either Star Trek V or Star Trek Nemesis. But it is far far far from the best of the bunch, and it is a seriously flawed film, despite all the hype and the 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

What I Liked

The casting was unbelievably amazing. Every single actor was a one-in-ten-thousand choice for the role. Not only because of physical resemblance (special recognition goes to Karl Urban as McCoy-- his face is so perfect as a young McCoy that it's positively frightening), but also because they all seem to have nailed the attitude of their characters, down to the way they hold their bodies and the cadence in their voices. With the exception of Simon Pegg as Scotty. He was just a manic funnyman, and I didn't care for that characterization. The original Scotty had a pathos that Pegg lacks.

The music was very well done. I especially thought the score during the fight between Kirk and Nero was outstanding; it really seemed to evoke the original series for me. I am somewhat disappointed that they didn't include the original series theme until the ending credits, but I can understand the desire to move away from the original and give the new film legs of its own. But then, why include the original theme at all? But that's a quibble.

The costumes. I must admit, I like the new uniforms a LOT. The cadet uniforms especially; I found them very evocative of the "monster maroon" uniforms from movies II - VI. The regular duty uniforms were also very well-done; I like the sort of hex-mesh fabric, and the fact that the insignia were metal. The quick flash of Pike's admiral uniform at the end was especially reminiscent of Kirk's admiral uniform from ST:TMP (and I am sure the Pike-in-a-wheelchair thing wasn't an accident). The only ones I didn't care for were the Romulans, but since they were explicitly said *not* to be regular military Romulans, I can overlook it.

The special effects. It's difficult to find a genre movie nowadays that doesn't get the SFX right, and Trek does not disappoint. The CGI is flawless, and the suspension of reality was complete for me. I think some of the ship designs seemed almost deliberately clunky-looking, but hey, what do I know about designing warp-capable starships in the 23rd century? (Exception: the Vorlon Planet-Killer Romulan mining ship Narada seemed just unnecessarily weird.)

The pacing. This film is impeccably paced. It never, ever drags, and even those points where exposition is absolutely required seem to fly. I am guessing that's because of JJ Abrams' experience in television. Wherever it comes from, if I could notice it, it was good.

What I Didn't Like

Plot holes big enough to fly a starship through. (1) Ambassador Spock is marooned on Delta Vega, presumably for some time. Why the heck didn't he hie himself to the Starfleet base and warn the Federation about Nero? (2) Kirk just happens to magically land on the same planet, at just the same spot, as Ambassador Spock? That strains my credulity. (3) The penalty for mouthing off to the captain (acting captain) is being marooned on a hostile planet? WTF? Doesn't the new Enterprise have an effing brig? Why didn't Spock just make him walk the plank out an airlock, for crying out loud? (4) Starfleet is so limited in its resources that ALL of its personnel are off in some star system, and they need to empty out Starfleet Academy to come to the aid of Vulcan? And just where the hell did they get the ships for all those freshly-minted cadets to man? (5) And for that matter, if all personnel from Starfleet Academy were called to active duty (including the 17-year-old Chekov), where did all those OTHER cadets come from when Nero is blasting San Francisco Bay and hundreds of cadets come out of their dorms to watch? (6) Why does Nero need the drilling platform in the first place? From the way the "red matter" behaves at the end of the film (and when Vulcan is destroyed, for that matter), it doesn't need to be planted in the planet's core. It just needs to be in contact with regular matter, and the singularity will form. Just fire the red matter torpedo at the planet, and the rest will attend to itself.

Kirk the buffoon. For pretty much the first half of the film, Kirk is not only a bad-boy renegade. I can deal with that; it's a good choice to go with for the character. But he is played for laughs; the slapstick with him and McCoy when they first come on the Enterprise was painful to watch. Giving Kirk an injection to make him appear sick to get him on the ship I can absolutely see. But shot after shot after shot, with ever-more-humorous results... the swollen hands, the numb tongue so he can't talk... ugh. Awful, gratutious, and distracting. Plus, they way overplay the "Kirk as ladies' man" angle. Fine, we get it. But one or two fewer scenes of him ogling the female crewmen would have been quite welcome. He was close to Benny Hill in places. File the goofy Scotty under this category as well.

Spock and Uhura. Let's set aside for the moment the whole "Starfleet Academy has no directory where you can find someone's name after three years of trying" thing. But where the hell did the whole Spock-Uhura love angle come from? We are given NO inkling of it prior to the awkward scene in the turbo-lift, and then on the transporter pad Spock seems quite unconcerned with his flagrant PDA in front of Kirk, Scotty, et al. Maybe-- just maybe-- I can see it between them in the turbo-lift alone. But in the transporter room? Completely uncharacteristic, just within the framework of this film, setting aside the rest of what we know about Spock.

The Time Travel MacGuffin. One can go two ways with a "reboot" such as this. The first is to completely ignore what has gone before and just start from scratch. Planet of the Apes did this with disasterous effects, and Batman Begins did it very effectively. The other is to try to think of some excuse for changes. Time travel! Alternate timelines! Brilliant! Ummm... no. The changes they have effected here are simply beyond the scope of whatever changes introducing Nero 25 someodd years in the past would have caused. The technology is totally different. Planets have completely moved (Delta Vega has moved from the edge of the galaxy to being, apparently, one of Vulcan's moons, and gone from scrub desert to frozen waste in the process). The characters seem to have morphed in terms of age; Sulu, Kirk, Chekov, Uhura, etc. are all contemporaries in the Academy. It only makes sense for Spock to be there, as he is presented as a Commander and an Academy instructor. Etc. etc. etc.

Nonsensical regulations (though this could be placed under the "plot holes" category, too). Spock is emotionally distraught because of the destruction of his home planet and the death of his mother, so he loses his brevet promotion to captain of the Enterprise forever? What the hell kind of regulation is that? And Kirk gets a medal, so as a Junior in the Academy, he gets bumped from cadet to captain? What the hell sense does that make?

The unfortunate self-references. Ummm... a giant Romulan ship that is unstoppable and kills entire planets? Where have we heard that before? Oh, yeah. Star Trek: Nemesis. Not a good omen.

Conclusion

On the whole, this film has a lot going for it, but unfortunately it has some fundamental flaws that ruined the effect for me and had me actively groaning at points. Still, it's not a complete disaster, and if some of the characterizations can be tightened up a bit, and the silliness tamped down a bit, the sequel to this could be one for the books.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

We Game

I don't often post after-action reports of my gaming sessions, but I thought it might make a nice change from my regular fare here at Greyhawk Grognard. For the first time in a month, my gaming group got together to continue their exploration of the Halls of the Purple Priest in the bottom of the Rift Canyon. They went in search of gold stolen under mysterious circumstances from the families of failed coup plotters in exile from nearby Tenh (long story there with which I won't bore you, but suffice to say that some of our game sessions emphasize dungeon crawling and/or combat, and some emphasize role-playing and intrigue, and sometimes it's a mix of the two). I might mention this campaign has been going on a regular basis since January 2007.

They've been puttering around in this place for several game sessions, being very cautious (perhaps overly so) around the various traps (including a gravity-inverting pit) and nasties (including a bright red mold whose properties they still don't know), and seemingly incapable of remembering to bring the map each session, which means they have very little idea of how each of the parts they've explored fits in with the rest. Our games as of late have been not so productive game-wise; we've been spending more time cracking jokes and chatting than actually gaming. Which is fine, since we're friends and the socializing is as big a part of the reason we still game as anything else, but I decided this week I'd try to keep things a bit more focused, and the result was a much more productive (and I think enjoyable) game.

They managed to do enough exploration to finally fit together some parts of the map, connecting an area reached via one entrance to the Halls with another entrance. An encounter with a grey ooze didn't go so well for the fighter (a newer player to the game, and thus his character is still playing catch-up level-wise), who ended up losing the metallic parts of his scale mail, and the dwarf discovered the folly of going anywhere in this dungeon without the aid of a 10' pole, to the tune of a 20' spiked pit smack dab in front of a door. Which turned out to be a false door. *chortle*

The party then managed to discover a teleporter room (one-way), which brought them in proximity to what turned into the main encounter of the evening. A large group of pale-skinned and white-haired dwarven-looking chaps, complete with odd hook-like pole-arms and crossbows. The dwarf attempted to parley with his pasty cousins and was rewarded with a hail of poisoned crossbow bolts. There was a brief melee during which time the PCs discovered that those odd pole-arms were quite useful in pulling them off their feet and squandering a round in the process of getting back up.

While half of the pale dwarves shot their crossbows through the door while the PCs returned fire with a wand of magic missiles and an ill-conceived charge to melee range by the ranger (which led to a three-on-one thumping of said ranger). Eventually the PCs realized that they were only facing half the numbers they saw at first; the rest had run around and were flanking the PCs. A couple of hold person spells were enough to stem the tide, and although one of the pale foemen managed to escape, the PCs did the rest of them in.

The PCs, licking their wounds, entered the place which had held the fish-pale dwarves, and seem to have discovered the missing gold (the coins having been minted in the Tenha town of Redspan, so it's not a bad assumption), as well as a curious map showing the city of Riftcrag, the dungeon they entered, and some other locale which remains unknown (but which is connected to the Halls by a line on the map). And a stone throne of unknown properties and purpose. They are badly battered, and are completely ignorant of where they are; one of the players opined that the teleporter room could just as easily have brought them hundreds of miles away (perhaps even to that second locale on the map) as to just another portion of the dungeon they were in. An intriguing notion, that.

They are now left with not only the puzzle of finding an escape route, but also of logistics; how to move ten thousand pounds worth of gold coins? And, of course, there is the question of who sat on that throne (no obvious leader-types were encountered) and just where that one dwarf skeedaddled to.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this session, played at the always-hospitable Dark Tower Games in Denville, NJ. There was a game of 4E going on in the back of the store, but we got more than a few "first edition? WOW! That's really cool!" remarks when folks looked closely at our Players Handbooks. I suspect my own impression comes from the fact that I made a point of trying to keep the group focused on the dungeon, rather than on the chatter. I must discipline myself to such a policy going forward; I've got far too many ideas to throw at the players for them to spend so much real-time in a relatively minor dungeon adventure.

Plus the players have really seemed to get in the groove of an old-school dungeon crawl; they've been trying to outthink me, which is a perfect attitude (if futile ;-) ). Even the stuff that didn't work at the time (looking for secret doors at the bottom of a pit, for example, or trying to fool a suspected guardian/custodian into revealing itself) were excellent ideas, and I hope they don't abandon the practice just because a few ideas didn't work in those specific instances.

Good stuff all around, and next time it looks like we'll have a genuine marathon session like in my college days. Can't wait, and hopefully I'll think to take pictures.