Friday, February 22, 2013

The Foundations of Geek, Vargold-Style

Over at The Wasted Lands, Jason "Grey Elf" Vey has issued a blog challenge: "Tell us YOUR formative experiences, and what brought you to the wonderful world of Geek culture!"

As I sit in my office wearing a Boromir t-shirt that reads "One does not simply walk into Mordor," I can think of four distinct catalysts that led me to my current home well within the purlieu of the Dork Forest:

1977: Star Wars

I was not quite eight years old when Star Wars came out in movie theaters. I have vague memories of going to see the film with my dad (an image of Darth Vader talking to a stormtrooper comes to mind) at the Oakdale Mall in Johnson City. Clearly my mind was blown away: I have crystal-clear recollection of coming home and rechristening "Herbie," my pet rock with the broken googly eyes, "R2-D2." Goodbye, Disney, and hello, Lucasfilm! (How was I to know that the Love Bug and the droids would one day be under the same corporate thumb?) I have been a fan of science-fiction ever since, but my nascent love of that genre was soon to be eclipsed by its sister . . .

1979: J. R. R. Tolkien

That's the Brothers Hildebrandt's version of Gollum from the 1978 J. R. R. Tolkien Calendar, but I didn't personally see it until February 1979 when a fellow fourth-grader showed it to me in class. "Who is that," I asked, "and where can I find out more about him?" My friend sent me to the Endwell Elementary School library to pick up a copy of Tolkien's Hobbit. The library had a painting of the Rankin-Bass Bilbo Baggins on its wall, which reminded me that I had seen the first hour of the Rankin-Bass Hobbit back in November 1977, a year and three months earlier. (I only saw the first hour because it aired on a school night and my parents made me go to bed halfway through. I still have never forgiven them for this offense.)

I started reading The Hobbit on the bus ride home and became so absorbed that I nearly missed my stop—Ellen Gavin, the girl from across the street, had to drag me off the bus. I finished the book that night in bed, reading with a flashlight while my parents entertained quests. I moved on to the trilogy, devouring The Lord of the Rings by mid-April. (The Return of the King was my present from the Easter Bunny.) I then reread the books annually for the next twenty-four years, only stopping the regular reread when my first child was born in 2004.

In a sense, my exposure to Tolkien is the most important of my geek catalysts because it's the one that led more or less directly to my current career as a professional medievalist—just like Tolkien.

1980: Dungeons & Dragons

I've looked for this image from the cover of the 27 January 1980 issue of Parade Magazine for years, and, now that I've finally located it (in preparation for writing this blog entry), I find it . . . underwhelming. In my memories of my first encounter with Dungeons & Dragons, the image was in stark black and white, and the LARPers formed a diagonal descending from left to right instead of right to left. I also clearly didn't remember the patronizing headline "Anyway, It Beats Swallowing Goldfish." Whatever. The main point is the utter awesomeness of the image and the game it represented to my ten-year-old mind: you mean I get to be the knight in shining armor killing the werewolf? Sold!

I had to wait until my eleventh birthday in August 1980 to actually acquire my copy of (probably) the seventh edition of the Holmes Basic Set (the one with The Keep on the Borderlands and the chits). But that present from my grandparents leads directly to this blog—even if there was some initial confusion about how to pronounce "charisma" and just what Hit Dice actually were.

1983: Walt Simonson's Thor

I had read comic books for some time before encountering the now notorious Thor #337 on the spinner rack at the Daily Store in Delhi. The titles I haphazardly followed were a combination of media tie-ins (Star Wars, Godzilla), toy promotions (Micronauts), and Conan the Barbarian. I had picked up some of Roy Thomas and Mark Gruenwald's run on Thor in the lead-up to the Thunder God's throw-down with the Celestials in #300, but Kirbytech alien gods didn't appeal to my fantasy-dominated sensibility so I drifted away from the book shortly thereafter.

Imagine my surprise in 1983 when I saw Beta Ray Bill smashing the book's logo, all drawn by that Walt Simonson guy whom I had so loved on Marvel's Battlestar Galactica book. I was hooked on Thor—and soon Marvel's policy of crossovers had me hooked on most of their other books as well. I took a hiatus from comics during the last two years of high school and all four years of college, but came back in 1991 to find out what was going on in Neil Gaiman's Sandman and haven't left since.

There you have it, my four Foundations of Geek. What are yours, dear readers?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Course Description for My Fantasy-Themed "Intro to Fiction" Class

Last fall I wrote about a fantasy literature course I was hoping to get to teach as part of my day job in Summer 2013. That teaching assignment came to pass (in the form of a section of ENGL 109, "Intro to Fiction"), and I'm turning in the course description now. Here it is:
This section of ENGL 109 approaches the critical analysis of prose fiction by considering that most fictitious of modern genres: fantasy. Detaching fiction from realism will allow us to focus primarily on storytelling: while the content of fantastic narratives bears a relation to lived experience, it does so in crooked fashion, calling attention to the formal elements from which stories are made. After all, fantastic worlds only come into being through authors’ deployment of narrative strategies such as plot, character, and point of view. Our texts are a mix of short and long narratives: stories by Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard, Angela Carter, and Kelly Link; novels by J. R. R. Tolkien, Patricia A. McKillip, China Miéville, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Because this course satisfies the Comp II requirement, we’ll also devote ample time in and out of class to the tactics and techniques of critical prose. Chief among these are peer review and revision of drafts.
It turns out that the Summer II session is exactly eight weeks long, so I won't have to cut anyone from the reading list. (We'll lose a day of Forgotten Beasts of Eld class due to the Fourth of July, but that shouldn't be a big problem.)

Monday, February 4, 2013

BareBones Fantasy: Offensive Strike

One of the ongoing debates among players and GMs of DWD Studio's BareBones Fantasy roleplaying game is the potency of the Offensive Strike spell (the game's primary direct damage attack for spell casters). As written, the spell has a range of 10 spaces per caster level in the Spellcaster skill, an unlimited usage, and a damage of 1d10 + (1d10 per caster level in the Spellcaster skill) to single targets (and half that amount to victims within 3 spaces of the target space). This damage cannot be reduced by normal armor. Coupled with the game's rules for multiple actions (-20 percentage points to each action after the first), the official version of the spell makes for increasingly powerful magic-users. I.e., a beginning character (one with Spellcaster at Rank 1) can quite easily throw two Offensive Strikes in a single turn, doing 2D10 armor-ignoring damage each time. My friend Mike's playtest wizard threw the spell at this level and was probably the most effective combat in our battle against the ghouls of the Maidens of Moordoth adventure.

I've been pondering a house rule to "fix" the spell that doesn't completely defang it: I like the spell's ability to bypass normal armor, and I don't mind that a hero with Rank 6 Spellcaster (the highest level of ability in the game) does approximately the same amount of damage with a single fireball that a Rank 6 Warrior does with three blows from a longsword (damage of 2D10+1 plus additional bonuses for high STR). But there is a bit of a problem when the wizard can do that level of damage three or four times in a turn.

So here's what I'm thinking: everything about Offensive Strike remains the same with the exception of the usage value. "Unlimited" is replaced with "1/turn." A spellcasting hero needs some time to recharge his armor-piercing attack magic, and that cooldown period is a single combat turn. A low-level wizard (someone at Rank 1 or 2) is going to have a reduction in their attack potency (compared to melee and missile-oriented characters), but they will also have several other spells to chain each turn with their Offensive Strike.

Thoughts? Things I haven't anticipated?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Heroes & Other Worlds Has Arrived

A hard week of work receives its reward as my copy of C. R. Brandon's Heroes & Other Worlds adventure game arrives in the mail (accompanied by the inaugural issue of the HOW fanzine, Cauldron). When I was a wee gamer, I was often intrigued by the ads in Dragon for the various components of Metagaming's Fantasy Trip series. Roger Stine's cover illustration for In the Labyrinth was particularly burned into my memory:

I don't know why I never picked up Melee, Wizard, or any of the other Fantasy Trip products. Possibly it was just because they were gone from the shelves of the local Waldenbooks by the time I was interested in moving beyond TSR games.

But the publication of HOW, a "simulacrum" of The Fantasy Trip, has allowed me to rectify that lapse of youth, and I plan to play the game and review it here on Vargold. Stay tuned!