Friday, June 12, 2015

His Secrets Guard Themselves: Sir Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

It wasn't enough to lose Terry Pratchett, Leonard Nimoy, and Tanith Lee so far this year, oh no. Now Death has come and claimed all-rounder Christopher Lee. There have been many tributes to the man who played Dracula, Scaramanga, Saruman, Dooku, Summerisle, etc., etc. The Lee performance I want to single out, though, is his turn as King Haggard in the 1982 adaptation of Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn.

This was my introduction to Lee as an actor, and it's thus no surprise that it has always been his voice that most thrills me. I still consider this monologue of his one of the highlights of his career:

Rest in peace, Sir Christopher.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Night's Mistress: Tanith Lee (1947-2015)

Fantasy / horror / SF Grand Master Tanith Lee passed away on Sunday. While I was a latecomer to her books, I was sufficiently blown away by the Tales of the Flat Earth sequence to teach Night's Master in Spring 2014. Here is the transcendent ending of that amazing novel:
     But abruptly Fair, the youngest of the seven sisters, crept to the window, and there in the east she saw a single yellow sword uplifted, the token that the sun was coming. What made her do it she never knew, but she hurried to the incredible man, and, kneeling by him, she kissed his mouth, and whispered: "Azhrarn, awake, for the sun returns to earth and you must return to your own kingdom."
     And the man's eyelids flickered up, and two dark fires blazed suddenly between the bladed lashes, and he smiled, and touched the lips of Fair with his cool fingers. And then he was gone.
     The room was filled with screaming yet again, while a black eagle rose unseen into the sky of earth, turned on its broad wings, and vanished without trace.
     Moments after, the bright sun rose. But be sure, the age of Innocence was ended.
Rest in peace, Tanith Lee.

Monday, March 16, 2015

[Barbarians of Lemuria] Terry Pratchett's Moist von Lipwig

The news of Terry Pratchett's death last Thursday hit me harder than I expected, probably since I had only recently finished teaching Going Postal for the first time (and consequently binging on other  Discworld books—Feet of Clay and Raising Steam—as well). I wasn't a fan of Pratchett's at first: the Rincewind novels didn't appeal to me when I first encountered them as a teen in the 1980s. It wasn't until a friend convinced me to try Small Gods in the mid-1990s that I got the point and became a lifelong fan. The Tiffany Aching books are my particular favorites, but I have also assiduously followed the Death, Guards, and Industrial Revolution sub-series as well.

So as a tribute to Pterry I'd like to revisit my first Vargold post on his work by writing up a Barbarians of Lemuria Mythic Edition version of Moist von Lipwig to stand alongside my 2011 Barbarians of Lemuria Legendary Edition write-up for Captain Carrot Ironfounderson. I haven't had a chance to really read the Mythic Edition rules yet (despite backing the Kickstarter), so this should be fun.

Moist von Lipwig

Strength 0
Agility 0
Mind 3
Appeal 1 

Initiative 2
Melee 0
Ranged 0
Defense 2

Beastmaster 0
Merchant 0
Scribe 1
Scoundrel 3

Lifeblood 10
Hero Points 5

Nothing noteworthy

Detect Deception
Master of Disguise
Silver Tongue

City Dweller

These game stats represent Moist as he is in the novel just after he gets his first visit from an angel named Vetinari—so no golden suit yet, no avatar-y goings on, only the vaguest inklings of a change of heart. Attributes: Moist is almost Vetinari-clever, so he gets the maximum possible starting Mind score; his Appeal is only at 1 because his looks are rather average. Combat: Moist is not really much of a fighter (a plot point in Raising Steam), so I've put his points here into getting the jump on threats (so that Moist can run away) via Initiative and avoiding getting hit through Defense. Careers: His grandfather raised Lipzwigers, so there's some Beastmaster-potential in Moist; Merchant also gets a 0 to reflect Moist's ability to know just enough about the economy to scam people; Scribe has an actual level since Moist is an active forger; and Scoundrel, a variant of Thief, is obviously maxed out at 3 for our favorite conman. Boons and Flaws are all straightforward, obvious choices.

"Goodnight, sweet Hogfather, and flights of anthropomorphic
personifications sing thee to thy rest!"

Friday, February 6, 2015

[Supers!] Big Hero 6's Wasabi

With the DVD/Blu-Ray release of Disney's Big Hero 6 coming up on February 24th, I thought it might be fun to stat up at least one of the members of the team. So here's the Supers! Revised Edition sheet for Wasabi, my favorite character in the film.


Resistances (5D)
Composure 1D
Fortitude 3D
Reaction 2D
Will 3D

Aptitudes (8D)
Academia 3D (Lasers 4D, Applied Physics 4D)
Athleticism 2D
Fighting 2D
Technology 3D

Powers (7D)
Armor 3D (Device -1D)
Super Weapon 5D (Plasma Blades, Split Action 1D, Device -1D)

Advantages (1D)
I Brought This Along 1D ("What do you need, little man? Deodorant? Breath mint? Fresh pair of underpants?")

Disadvantages (-2D)
Enemy (Yokai/Callaghan) 1D
Minor Mental Hindrance ("A place for everything, everything in its place") -1D

Competency Dice (1D)

Since the characters in Big Hero 6 are all starting their characters, I built Wasabi using the standard Supers! amount of 20 build dice. He's a big guy, and he doesn't give up, so Fortitude and Will were his top Resistances. He is also easily flustered, so Composure at 1D seems appropriate. The Athleticism and Fighting Aptitudes reflect his experience with tai chi; I've given him "lasers" and "applied physics" as specializations for his Academia, but I could just as easily move "lasers" to be a Technology specialization. Note that Wasabi very deliberately doesn't have any extra dice in Vehicles ("You have to indicate your turn, it's the law!"). Powers are straightforward: his Big Hero 6 costume ("Anyone else's suit riding up on them?") doubles as high-quality Armor, and his plasma blades are a Super Weapon with a Split Action Boost (since he can use the blades independently of one another for attack and defense). The Advantage is an obvious choice given the quote I've attached to it. Even though Yokai/Callaghan's daughter is safe, he's still in play as a potential Enemy, and Wasabi's OCD is a definite Minor Mental Hindrance. I didn't give him a Phobia (Heights) because, while he whines about having to fly holding on to Baymax, he seems just fine fighting Yokai at various elevations. Finally, I left him with a Competency Die just because it's a good idea.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Teaching Contemporary Fantasy in Spring 2015

Sorry about the delay in blogging here at Vargold: the end of the Fall 2014 semester, family vacation time during the winter break, and the beginning of the Spring 2015 semester have forced me to concentrate on non-blogging and (really) non-gaming matters. But I thought that I could at least spare a few moments to talk about my current course on contemporary fantasy novels. I've done the historical approach numerous times now, and I thought it might be interesting to concentrate only on recent books instead. I also decided to bite the bullet re J. K. Rowling and finally add a Harry Potter novel to my teaching repertoire. Since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite Potter book, this made 1999 the terminus ab quo for the class. I also decided to try and split the reading list down the middle in both national and gender terms: four Brits and four Americans, four men and four women. The national split was easy to accomplish, with Rowling, Miéville, Pratchett, and Walton representing the UK and Le Guin, Díaz, Jemisin, and Wilson representing the States. I ended up with a slightly lopsided gender split of five women (Rowling, Le Guin, Jemisin, Walton, and Wilson) and three men (Miéville, Díaz, and Pratchett), largely because most of the contemporary male fantasists I admire are British writers (e.g., Joe Abercrombie, Neil Gaiman, etc.) and I already had enough Brits. I also tried to increase the presence of writers of color in the class (Díaz and Jemisin), a move augmented by books by white authors with explicitly non-white protagonists (Le Guin's Memer and Wilson's Alif). Finally, I owed Jemisin one, having dropped One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms from my Summer 2013 fantasy class.

In the end, I think I came up with a fairly diverse set of recent fantasy novels, both in social terms as well as thematic ones. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the odd book out as it's less a straightforward fantasy and more of a reflection on fantasy fiction's embeddedness in the imperialist and colonialist projects of the modern West. But then my sense is that most of the best fantasies are explicitly books about writing and fiction and the nature/power of language—so the more meta Oscar Wao fits right in in this regard.

Right now we've just started The Scar. Our class discussion of Prisoner of Azkaban was outstanding: the students did a great job, and I developed a new respect for what Rowling was doing in that novel, especially in relation to the uncanny and the problem of the past.

Monday, December 8, 2014

[Into the Odd] Hypatia Handel and Mr. Sweets (NPCs)

The Favorite © 2010 Omar Rayyan 

As I noted in my last post, I love Chris McDowall's Into the Odd. I also love the artwork of Omar Rayyan. (There are signed and framed prints of Rayyan's Cemetery Puca and Tar Pitcher illustrations for Magic: The Gathering on my office wall.) Finally, I love image-based character creation (as utilized in, say, the late, lamented Everway RPG).

So why not put them all together? I'm going to generate a series of Into the Odd NPCs using some of my favorite Rayyan paintings and illustrations, beginning with the lovely 2010 piece depicted above ...

Hypatia Handel
STR 7, DEX 12, WIL 17, 3 HP.

Penknife (d6), 3S.

Blond and lacy. DRIVEN TO EXPLORE THE UNDERGROUND—ALL OF IT. (After all, the rest of Mr. Sweets's family must be down there somewhere?)

Mr. Sweets
STR 17, DEX 12, WIL 10, hp 10, Armour 1.

Leathery, baggy, and ugly—but strangely redolent of lavender. DRIVEN TO PROTECT HYPATIA AT ALL COSTS. Mr. Sweets usually attacks with his claws and bite (d6), but he will gore a target with his horns (d8) if he has room to charge.

... What, you thought Mr. Sweets was using Hypatia to conquer Bastion for his foul kind? He's really just the classic "hideous yet loyal pet that only a child can love"—but in Bastion, those pets come with fangs and claws and abdomen-ripping horns. I envision Hypatia's parents hiring PCs to track her down on one of her Underground jaunts; Hypatia could also be a valuable source of information about just what's underneath the city streets.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

[Into the Odd] Initial Thoughts

I'm currently obsessed with Chris McDowell's Into the Odd, an extremely streamlined D&D neoclone published in PDF and print formats by Paolo Greco under the Lost Pages imprint. I'm not joking about the streamlined part: an Into the Odd character first rolls 3d6 to generate Strength, Dexterity, and Willpower scores, then rolls 1d6 for HP, and finally chooses a starting package of equipment based on the intersection of his highest ability score and his HP total. That's it. It's so easy I'll do it right now ...

OK, I rolled a 16 STR, a 12 DEX, and a 5 WIL plus a 2 for HP. Clearly this character is a powerful brawler with a decent amount of speed and agility—but his will is incredibly weak. He's very impulse-driven and not at all good with the occult. His starting package of gear consists of a staff (d8 damage), a pair of tongs, and some glue. Not great equipment, but if his STR were any higher, he'd be looking at a prosthetic leg or one arm! (As your abilities and HP increase, your results on the starting gear table grow more ... ambivalent.)

Once play begins, the rules are incredibly simple. When your character chooses to do something risky or dangerous, you make a saving roll versus the relevant ability. Equal or under your score succeeds. Combat's deadly by design: there are no hit rolls, just damage rolls. Damage comes off HP first; when that total zeroes out, the character makes a STR save to avoid Critical Damage (i.e., being incapacitated and in danger of dying unless tended to within an hour). Assuming the save is made, the character then takes damage off his STR score. At 0 STR, death ensues.

Of course, simplified D&D clones like this aren't anything particularly new these days. The system in Into the Odd is mostly designed to get out of the way, letting players focus instead on the fiction, the experience of the game—and this is where Into the Odd really shines.

The game's setting can best be described as "China Miéville meets OD&D." There is Bastion, a teeming metropolis technologically situated somewhen between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. (Factories turn out firearms and the like, but swords are still commonly used.) Beyond Bastion's walls and its ring of sister cities are the largely abandoned Deep Country and the exotic Golden Lands. To the north lies the mysterious and deadly Polar Ocean. Oh, and there's trouble both above and below: beings are raining down into Bastion's streets from the Stars while monsters bubble up from the city's Underground, an endless chthonic playground.

A typical scenario involves the discovery and exploration of weird, eldritch ruins or landscapes in search of Arcana, strange artifacts capable of granting great powers as well as twisted curses. In other words, the player characters end up looking an awful lot like the adventurers who assist Isaac in Perdido Street Station or the salvors in Railsea. (Bastion-centered scenarios will feel more like the former novel while adventures in the Golden Lands will tend toward the latter book.)

It's the weird touch that attracts me to what's possibly an even more brutal ruleset than OD&D. When I'm playing a sword-and-sorcery or high fantasy game, I have trouble dealing with the low life expectancy of Old School characters. But transpose everything to a bizarre salvage-punk environment, and I'm golden.

Looking forward to getting a chance to play Into the Odd soon!