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Thorgal!

Why did nobody tell me how great Thorgal is?  (Ok, Trey Causey tried back in 2013, but I wasn’t reading his blog back then, and made the mistake of not crawling through all the archives when I added it to my list of must-reads.  Mea culpa.)

Despite the name, Thorgal is not about Marvel’s new female version of Thor, but a Belgian fantasy comic that’s been produced since 1977, by the team of Jean Van Hamme (writer) and Grzegorz Rosiński (artist).  It’s definitely in the science-fantasy mold, as Thorgal is an orphan from outer-space plopped down among the Vikings.  Not too much is made of that, actually, except him having a great destiny.  The first volume of the English translation goes into it, but apparently it was originally volume 7.  I think for the English editions they moved it up to its chronological position, because they wanted to start with an “origin”?. This gives it a slightly odd feeling, since it originally served as a flashback and doesn’t have any of the foreshadowing devices you might expect if it was really the beginning of the story, but if you just let it flow I promise you’ll be richly rewarded.

I’m particularly taken with Aaricia, the cleverest princess of them all (not her actual billing, just my reaction to her). Whether it’s rescuing Thorgal, rescuing a god, or solving an ancient riddle Aaricia can always figure it out. Unfortunately I’m only three volumes in and she’s currently sidelined, but I’m hoping to see a lot more of her in the future.

Thorgal is more than just a viking slab of beef, particularly in terms of conscience, but it’s Aaricia, pictured above, that I really like.

update just finished volume three, and Aaricia saves the day as usual. Go Aaricia!

 

You can get the first book here (Amazon associates link, so conceivably I could get some money if you choose to order it via the link)

Heroes & Other Worlds

Long, long ago, some time after the oceans drank Atlantis and before the rise of the world wide web, there were a pair of delightful little games of fantasy gladiatorial combat: Melee and, a bit later, Wizard.   They were written by Steve Jackson, and put out by a company called Metagaming.  We enjoyed them so much, they quickly replaced the  combat system we were using for Dungeons & Dragons (which was itself the “alternate combat system” described in Men & Magic, since the “real” combat system was Chainmail and we didn’t have a copy of that.)  Eventually Metagaming released The Fantasy Trip, also by Jackson, and I enthusiastically glommed onto that, while my brother continued using the homebrew that grew out of that original grafting of Melee/Wizard onto D&D.  Some time later, Metagaming went belly-up, and Steve Jackson tried to buy the rights to TFT back from Howard Thompson; Thompson wanted some ridiculous amount of money for it, so the deal never happened, and Thompson wandered off and that’s pretty much the last anybody ever heard of him.   Jackson went on to do a new, unconstrained version of his vision and what emerged was GURPS, but that’s another story.

I played TFT for years. That and the Arduin Grimoire were my fantasy jam. Eventually I drifted away because of slight dissatisfaction with some elements of the system, particularly at higher power levels, and the thrill of chasing something new.   (I gave GURPS more than a fair shake, when that came along, but… well, some other time maybe.)  Mostly I ended up playing home-brews, often heavily influenced by TFT and its class-less, level-less “be anything you want to spend points on” system. When decades later I encountered the OSR and people who had never given up on their old systems, and/or people who’d newly encountered them in the form of various retro-clones that provided copy-right friendly versions of long out-of-print editions, mostly of D&D, it never actually occurred to me to look for retro-clones of TFT.  It turns out, though, that there are several.  One in particular, Legends of the Ancient World,  by Dark City Games, deserves mention as a streamlined, stripped down version that compresses everything into 8 pages, and happens to be free.

A much more ambitious and complete (as well as more expensive) project is Heroes & Other Worlds, by C.R. Brandon, which has been described (paraphrasing) as TFT meets Moldvay Basic.  It’s a very impressive offering, with pretty substantial additional support, particularly a monster & treasure manual (The Tome of Terrors & Treasures… flipping expensive, though, even for 425 pages), and a supplement of extra spells (The Magi Carta, 190 pages)  both translations into HOW terms of OGL material, and several adventure and setting supplements (including a HOW version of my friend Rob Conley’s Blackmarsh setting Blackmarsh: Heroes & Other Worlds Edition).

I really dig Heroes & Other Worlds, although I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, both for the wealth of material that it provides and for the ways it has simplified some of the odder things in TFT, such as the way HOW eliminates the IQ minimums for learning various talents (in HOW called Skills).  No more minimum of 10 IQ to learn the most rudimentary form of martial arts; it may have made sense as a game balance technique to prevent fighters from using IQ as a dump stat, but it’s pretty hard to justify on any other grounds.  It also introduces some of its own new ideas, some of which are very neat indeed: I particularly like the notion of “reactions” that allow a character to Parry or Dodge at the cost of moving next turn, instead of taking a full turn (no attack) as in TFT, and the EN(durance) stat that allows for spell-casters with a lot of magical oomph who aren’t built like Conan.  HOW does introduce some of its own oddities, like Tridents being as good on the average wielded one-handed as Halberds with two, but you could easily change them back to the original TFT rules (available from David O. Miller’s Melee & Wizard site).

It is kind of pricey, as retro-clones go, and you might want to start by dipping your toes in Legends of the Ancient Worlds if you want to try a TFT-like for free… but HOW and its supplements represent a good deal of work by Brandon and I don’t begrudge him some recompense for the labor.  I’m looking forward to running TFT again in the near future, probably on a G+ Hangout some evening.  For me it’s like putting on a comfy old sweater in a way that D&D never really was.  Check it out.

Heroes & Other Worlds

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Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Pile of Crap

Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire is somewhere near the bottom of whatever scale it is that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is at the top of.  It’s not the very bottom, because it’s not painful to watch, just boring where it isn’t sophomoric.  It’s the kind of comedy where a flamingly gay character is regarded as inherently funny, just mincing around.  If you took away its trading in the broadest of stereotypes, there would be almost nothing left. It really strikes me as the kind of skit that a group of high-school students might have cooked up.

More than its low-brow humor not appealing to me, it’s not competently executed.  In one scene in particular, the staging completely kills the joke.  The dialogue has it that the evil provincial governor Dongalor kills a henchman who is threatening to report him to the Emperor, but mistakenly kills the wrong henchman; realizing his mistake complains to his right-hand man that he thought they had agreed to label the backs of all the chairs.  The staging, though, has the henchman who is threatening to report Dongalor to the emperor on the left of a conference table, the other henchman on the right, with the camera in between and both chairs “cheated” to three-quarters so that the occupants are visible both to the audience and to Dongalor up on a platform in the center of the stage.  So as it comes across, Dongalor is talking directly to the rebellious henchman stage left, then  suddenly moves downstage, turns to stage right and stabs a different henchman…and then has to be told by his assistant that he just stabbed the wrong guy. Then he launches into his complaint about labelling the backs of the chairs.  I suspect that what was visualized during the writing was that Dongalor would be striking over or through the backs of the chairs, with the occupants not visible to him, but not only did translating that onto the screen fail, apparently either nobody noticed or cared that the result looked utterly bizarre.

I had really been looking forward to this show since I first heard about it, and I really wanted to like it… but it could barely raise the ghost of a smile.  I counted two somewhat amusing bits in the whole thing, and even then the writers didn’t trust the actors to convey the joke without hammering it home with extra dialogue.  The density of jokes in Krod Mandoon is very low, but if you’re not going for Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker rapid-fire throw everything at the wall and see if some of it sticks parody, you really have to craft the jokes that you do have well and make sure that they’re sharp.

I have the second episode Tivoed, but I doubt I’ll bother.

The Random Esoteric Creature Generator

The Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Roleplaying Games and their Modern Simulacra, by James Edward Raggi IV, published by Goodman Games.  32 pages, $12.99

The RECG is a set of tables for constructing bizarre D&D-style creatures, complete with Armor Class, Hit Dice, number of attacks, damage, special abilities, movement, morale, etc.  It’s not tied to any particular version of D&D, as indicated by the somewhat unwieldy subtitle, but it won’t produce creatures ready to play for 3e without at least some tweaking, and 4e is right out.  If you’re willing to do some more work to stat up the creatures, you can probably use the most interesting aspects (generally the description and special abilities) for nearly any game system.

When I say bizarre, I mean bizarre.  This is not a system for calling a rabbit a smeerp, not even a rabbit with frickin’ laser-beam eyes.  Maybe a flat rabbit-like creature that moves by slithering, attacks with its spiked tail, has a rubbery body that halves damage, and drains Charisma with a successful attack.  Exactly what is rabbit-like about the creature is left to the GM’s imagination and descriptive abilities.  The system is really good at coughing up things that you never would have imagined on your own.  It is somewhat less good (read, makes no attempt at all, except to advise the GM to try) at making it all hang together coherently.  The author’s advice seems to regard that as a feature, spurring the user to greater heights of creativity in trying to decide what “a 20-sided die with characteristics of a skunk, made of water” might actually be.

It’s good for creatures out of nightmare, or settings where creatures out of nightmare might be common such as an old-school dungeon.  You wouldn’t use it as a starting point for anything that makes a pretense of naturalism, even Gygaxian naturalism, or tries to fit into an ecology.  To be fair, the author is perfectly up-front about his disdain for that sort of stuff; most of the advice on using the charts is along the lines of “Monsters that are not unique are not mystical creatures of wonder.”  I’m not sure what I think of that; monsters of legend are a fairly mixed bag some being unique (the Minotaur, the Sphinx), others being something that anybody might run into on a lonely road at night (Will o’ the Wisps, boggarts, Hakutaku, etc.)  It’s true that players will be more wary of creatures that are new in their experience, but wariness is not the same as fear.  I’ve never had any trouble getting players to fear level-draining creatures like Wraiths, for instance.  It’s because the players know what Wraiths can do that they’re afraid of them.  I think if you follow the author’s advice on using the tables, you run the risk of turning encounters with the monsters into a game of Russian Roulette (because of the fairly high possibility of nasty special abilities that the characters can’t in principle know about or prepare for) and you rob your campaign of the opportunity to have a certain unique flavor.  Players who learn to deal with a kind of monster unique to a game world gain a sense of mastery over the domain that I think is rewarding.  If you followed the link to the description of the Hakutaku, note how the ancient Chinese text goes into detail about how to deal with them:   Make a peach bow, jujube arrows, and attach kite feathers to them. Shoot it with them. If Wolf Demon becomes Whirling Wind (piāo fēng 飄風), remove a shoe, throw (the shoe) at it, and it cannot transform.3 If there’s a kind of creature that’s been kicking their asses and taking their lunch money whenever they run into it, and the finally figure out it’s vulnerable to sonic damage, that can be a really satisfying and memorable moment for a campaign; in a single encounter they may never figure it out, particularly if such weaknesses are determined randomly as in the RECG instead of by theme (a crystal creature is vulnerable to sonics, a fire creature to water, etc.)  They also gain a mental hook (this is the game world where people burned by fire come back as Firewights) that distinguishes the game world from all the others that might be using the same source books…even including the RECG.  If every monster is sui generis then that flat rabbit stingy thing might have occurred in anybody’s campaign.

Good Points

  • Does what it sets out to do, and provides good guidance in how the author intends the book to be used
  • Spurs creativity
  • Good looking, nice and evocative illustrations
  • Caters to Old School adventure gaming
  • Not directly tied to a particular edition of D&D

Bad Points

  • Pricey.  $12.99 is a fair chunk of change for 32 pages.  While I respect what Goodman Games is accomplishing by getting this in game shops at all, I would have been happier to have this at half the price via PDF; given its size and nature I probably wouldn’t even bother to print it out.
  • Charts are somewhat bloated.  There’s really no reason to have, say, the special ability to temporarily drain an Attribute point split into 24 entries (1 for each attribute times whether the attribute is drained 1, 2, 3, or 1d6 points); that should have been one entry with the attribute determined randomly and the amount drained being 1, 2, 3, or 1d6 depending on the roll of a die.  Similarly for various immunities (cold, fire, wood, etc) the creature might have and whether they do half or no damage, or levels of regeneration.

Overall

I’d give it 3 out of 5.  I like it, but I like Old School stuff and I like random charts as a brainstorming tool.  I think the people who will really enjoy this are the kind who know they want it just from the description of what it is.  They’re also probably the kind of people who immediately upon getting it and rolling up a few creatures say, cool, now let me do my own even more awesome charts!

Some Additonal Reviews

BESM Dungeon

I tried running a solo game for Russell, using the new Big Eyes, Small Mouth: Dungeon pregenerated adventure. I’d been wanting to try BESM, just to see how the system worked, and this seemed like a good opportunity. As it turns out, BESM isn’t bad–I think a bit better in terms of chargen than actual play (the combat system in particular has the feature that equally good opponents will actually score a hit on eachother at most 25% of the time–which makes for pretty long combats without a lot of decision points); it’s close enough to my homebrew that in the future I’ll probably either swipe some of it for the homebrew (I like the point cost system for buying unique powers), or if I run any BESM tweak it with house rules from my homebrew (e.g. making degree of success matter in combat would fix the problem I mentioned).
That being said, though, the editing in Dungeon was horrible: bad enough that it nearly negates the usefulness of having the adventure written out for you. For instance, it provides templates to make it quick to create a character–but the templates have enough errors and omissions in them that you really have to recalculate them from scratch before using them. Similarly, the random encounter charts helpfully indicate the page numbers for the creatures encountered, but those pages turn out to be templates for creating monsters, not fully-stated monsters. The idea, I suppose, is that you can adjust the difficulty to match the party; in practice it means that you have to spend time building the monsters in advance or try to do it on the fly during the game. I did the latter, and accidentally made the first encounter too tough and it wiped out Russell’s party (timely intervention by an NPC that they had rescued saved them, but still…) Even the monster encounters that are fully worked have problems: one room (that Russell never got to) said it contained a necromancer and twelve zombies. A sentence later it said “Both zombies have swords.” Looking at the description of the necromancer to try and settle whether it’s twelve or two zombies shows that he doesn’t have enough points allocated for twelve unless they are flunkies who can’t attack (but that’s not how their stats look–they have fighting skills and are built on double the points of a flunky), but it’s not enough points for two servants (who can attack) who are a powerful as the zombie description, either. Argh.
The final verdict: BESM, pretty cool rules-light system, but needing some tweaks to make it scale and speed combat. BESM Dungeon: waste of time and effort.