Friday, September 28, 2007

The Scarlet Pimpernel Reviewed

As forerunner of both the spy and superhero genres, The Scarlet Pimpernel is something I really wanted to enjoy. There is delightful wordplay throughout and buried gems for those bemused by obscure words (where else can one read “loth” or see “balustrade” used these days?). When not outright stereotyping, there is some fun sarcasm at the expense of the French. It is Orczy’s lethargic pacing that allows for so much wordplay and all of the book’s humor.

Sadly, the story needs anything but this lethargic pace. The novel’s roots on the stage are evident in how long it takes to transplant characters from one spot to another. Most of eight chapters take place in one room of an inn, and then two characters return there later!

The Scarlet Pimpernel is not the main character, but the plot focuses on Lady Marguerite Blakeney and her efforts, first to learn the Scarlet Pimpernel’s true identity, and then to save him. That the Scarlet Pimpernel is actually her husband, Lord Percy Blakeney, is hardly a spoiler, being horribly easy to guess for anyone familiar with the cliché this started – the dashing hero disguised as the ineffectual fop (e.g. Zorro, Batman, et al.). What is more interesting is watching circumstances force Marguerite to mature to the point where she is ready to handle knowing his secret and then the excitement when she decides to race the villainous Chauvelin to her husband’s side to warn him. This race could have made the second half of the book very exciting, so it is the novel’s biggest disappointment when the race comes to a screeching halt almost as soon as it starts. A convenient storm delays the channel crossing and Chauvelin delays her in France, all for the purpose of slowing down the story and keeping characters from physically moving. It is no surprise when the focus shifts from this race to the false suspense built around the Pimpernel’s last, obvious disguise. Almost worse is the curt ending that snaps to a close with just a hint of the Blakeney’s reconciliation, without any emotional payoff from getting to observe it.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a superhero in the sense that he is supposed to have exceptional skill at disguise (although they seem obvious to us, he’s fooled his own wife for years), but is also supposedly quite strong. We never actually see him using his strength, but Chauvelin still guesses that it will take five men to take him down. Rather than brute force, the Pimpernel always outwits his foes and, interestingly, in the most subtle manner possible. His escape from Chauvelin (at yet another inn) is elegantly simple and one of the highlights of the second half.

All-Star Campaign Characters

[The following were developed in 2004 for a possible d20 superhero campaign]

Character Name: Clark Kent/Superman
Class: Fighter
Race: Kryptonian
Alignment: Neutral Good (Chaotic)
Level: 6
Campaign: All-Star Campaign
Experience Points: 15,000

Size: M
Age: 23
Gender: Male
Height: 6'2"
Weight: 446 lbs.
Eyes: Blue
Hair: Black
Complexion: Fair

Abilities Bonus
STR: 69 +29
DEX: 25 +7
CON: 68 +28
INT: 18 +4
WIS: 17 +3
CHA: 19 +4

HP: 228
AC: 17
AC Type: None
Initiative: +11
Speed: 60 ft.

Saving Throws: Fortitude +33, Reflex +9, Will +5
Melee Bonus: +35/+30
Ranged Bonus: +13/+8

Skills: Balance (Dex+1=8), Bluff (Cha+3=7), Climb (Str+1=30), Disguise (Cha+2=6), Gather Info. (Cha+3=7), Heal (Wis+1=4), Intimidate (Cha+6=10), Intuit Direction (Wis+1=4), Jump (Str+593=622), Know. - Architecture (Int+1=5), Know. - Geography (Int+1=5), Know. - Local (Int+1=5), Listen (Wis+6=9), Prof. - Journalist (Wis+3=6), Search (Int+3=7), Sense Motive (Wis+2=5), Spot (Wis+6=9), Swim (Str+1=30)

Lift Over Head: 60 tons Lift Off Ground: 120 tons Push or Drag: 300 tons

Feats: Alertness, Blind-Fight, Combat Reflexes, Deflect Arrows, Improved Bull Rush, Improved Disarm, Improved Initiative, Improved Unarmed Stike, Iron Will, Power Attack, Run, Stunning Fist.

Special Qualities: Damage reduction +4/-20, Keen Senses (x2 vision/60' darkvision).

(Race: Kryptonian. +50 to Str, +25 to Dex, +50 to Con, +1 to Int, +2 to Cha. x2 Speed. Double Skill points total. No Skill max on Jump, +500 points automatically . Double no. of Feats.)

Character Name: Bruce Wayne/Batman
Class: Monk/Rogue
Race: Human
Alignment: Chaotic Good
Level: 2/2
Campaign: All-Star Campaign
Experience Points: 6,000

Size: M
Age: 25
Gender: Male
Height: 6'2"
Weight: 210 lbs.
Eyes: Blue
Hair: Black
Complexion: Fair

Abilities Bonus
STR: 17 +3
DEX: 18 +4
CON: 18 +4
INT: 18 +4
WIS: 18 +4
CHA: 16 +3

HP: 44
AC: 21
AC Type: None
Initiative: +8
Speed: 30 ft.

Saving Throws: Fortitude +7, Reflex +10, Will +7
Melee Bonus: +5
Ranged Bonus: +6

Skills: Alchemy (Int+3=7), Balance (Dex+2=6), Bluff (Cha+3=6), Climb (Str+4=7), Disable Device (Int+6=10), Disguise (Cha+3=6), Escape Artist (Dex+5=9), Gather Info. (Cha+6=6), Heal (Wis+1=5), Hide (Dex+5=10), Innuendo (Wis+2=6), Intimidate (Cha+6=9),
Intuit Direction (Wis+1=5), Jump (Str+1=4), Know. - Geography (Int+1=5), Know. - Local (Int+2=6), Know. - Nobility (Int+1=5), Listen (Wis+2=6), Move Silently (Dex+6=10), Open Lock (Dex+6=10), Pick Pocket (Dex+2=6), Read Lips (Int+1=5), Ride (Dex+1=5), Search (Int+5=9), Sense Motive (Wis+3=7), Spot (Wis+5=9), Swim (Str+1=4),
Tumble (Dex+3=7), Use Rope (Dex+1=5)

Lift Over Head: 86 lbs. Lift Off Ground: 173 lbs. Push or Drag: 260 lbs.

Feats: Combat reflexes, Improved initiative.

Special Qualities: Unarmed strike (1d6), Stunning attack, Evasion, Deflect arrows, WIS bonus adds to AC, Sneak attack +1d6, Search/Disarm magical traps.

Items: Alchemist's lab, Thieves' tools (masterwork).

Character Name: Wesley Dodds/Sandman
Class: Rogue
Race: Human
Alignment: Chaotic Good
Level: 2
Campaign: All-Star Campaign
Experience Points: 1,000

Size: M
Age: 28
Gender: Male
Height: 5'11"
Weight: 172 lbs.
Eyes: Brown
Hair: Dark brown
Complexion: Fair

Abilities Bonus
STR: 16 +3
DEX: 17 +3
CON: 16 +3
INT: 18 +4
WIS: 17 +3
CHA: 13 +1

HP: 18
AC: 13
AC Type: None
Initiative: +7
Speed: 30 ft.

Saving Throws: Fortitude +3, Reflex +6, Will +3
Melee Bonus: +4
Ranged Bonus: +5

Skills: Alchemy (Int+2=6), Appraise (Int+1=5), Balance (Dex+3=6), Bluff (Cha+4=5), Climb (Str+4=7), Craft - Origami (Int+1=5), Decipher Script (Int+1=5), Disable Device (Int+2=6), Disguise (Cha+1=2), Escape Artist (Dex+3=6), Gather Info. (Cha+3=4), Heal (Wis+1=5), Hide (Dex+3=6), Innuendo (Wis+1=4), Intimidate (Cha+2=3), Intuit Direction (Wis+1=4), Jump (Str+1=4), Know. - Geography (Int+2=6), Know. - Local (Int+2=6), Know. - Nobility (Int+1=5), Listen (Wis+2=5), Move Silently (Dex+3=6), Open Lock (Dex+3=6), Pick Pocket (Dex+2=5), Ride (Dex+1=4), Search (Int+3=7), Sense Motive (Wis+3=6), Spot (Wis+3=6), Swim (Str+1=4), Tumble (Dex+3=6), Use Rope (Dex+2=5)

Lift Over Head: 76 lbs. Lift Off Ground: 153 lbs. Push or Drag: 230 lbs.

Feats: Improved initiative, Improved Unarmed Strike.

Special Qualities: Sneak attack +1d6, Search/Disarm magical traps, Evasion.

Magic Items: Wand of Sleep (50 charges, as per the spell, rechargeable).

Character Name: Jay Garrick/Flash
Class: Expert
Race: Human
Alignment: Neutral Good (Chaotic)
Level: 1
Campaign: All-Star Campaign
Experience Points: 500

Size: M
Age: 25
Gender: Male
Height: 5'11"
Weight: 179 lbs.
Eyes: Blue
Hair: Dark brown
Complexion: Fair

Abilities Bonus
STR: 19 +4
DEX: 36 +13
CON: 24 +7
INT: 14 +2
WIS: 13 +1
CHA: 14 +2

HP: 13
AC: 23
AC Type: None
Initiative: +13
Speed: 800 ft.

Saving Throws: Fortitude +7, Reflex +13, Will +3
Melee Bonus: +4
Ranged Bonus: +13

Skills: Alchemy (Int+3=5), Climb (Str+4=5), Heal (Wis+3=4), Intuit Direction (Wis+4=4), Jump (Str+4=8), Know. - Geography (Int+4=6), Listen (Wis+3=4), Search (Int+4=6), Spot (Wis+4=5), Swim (Str+3=7)

Lift Over Head: 116 lbs. Lift Off Ground: 233 lbs. Push or Drag: 350 lbs.

Feats: Dodge, Improved Unarmed Strike.

Player Character Morgue: Dasper

Name: Dasper
Class: Fighter
Race: Human
Sex: Male
Age: 22
Social Class: LMC
Height: 5'10"
Weight: 197 lbs.
Hair: Brown
Align: Neutral
Religion: Druidic
Strength: 16
Intelligence: 12
Wisdom: 11
Dexterity: 14
Constitution: 13
Charisma: 12
Comeliness: 12

Level: 1
XP: 0
HP: 7
AC: 7
Move: 10"
Enc.: 68 lbs.

Languages: Common, Lawful, Hobbit, Dwarven
Weapon Proficiencies: Morning star, spear, short bow, dagger
Non-Weapon Proficiencies: Direction sense, fire-building, hunting, swimming, tracking

Money: 6 cp, 8 sp, 1 ep, 11 gp

Weapons: Dagger, morningstar, spear (8')
Armor: Studded leather armor, basinet (small helm), high boots
Items: Backpack, bedroll, winter blanket, flint and steel, leather mug, dry rations (4 days), hemp rope (25'), 2 large sacks, 1 one-man tent, 2 torches, wineskin (full), whetstone
Clothing: Cold weather outfit, traveler's outfit
Mount: Bit and bridle, mule ("Karelle"), feed (8 days), pack saddle, saddlebags

Background: Dasper is the son of Dasper the Tanner. Dasper hails from a small, poor town which retains its druidic roots from when it was just a village. Seven years ago, he had a dream or vision in which he saw himself as a powerful bard, and both servant and ally to the druids. Dasper liked what he saw in this dream far better than life as an apprentice tanner to his father, so he fled from home, and took up any and all work he could to raise funds for training. He begged, borrowed, and stole for arms and armor. After spending some months as a man-at-arms with minimal experience in a few skirmishes with brigands and goblins, he decided that route wasn't for him. And then he had his first big break when he met a druid named Motzar. Motzar was impressed by Dasper's goals, and decided to start employing him for running errands and delivering messages to other druids in the area. Dasper has earned a local reputation as a trustworthy agent, which has made him happy. Dasper's new dream is to one day serve as the personal bodyguard for the Grand Druid.

Story: Dasper was entrusted by Motzar to represent him in a fledgling company of adventurers -- in one of the last campaigns ran by my friend Tom before he gave up D&D. Sadly, on a day I was absent, a player named Darren took revenge for imagined slights from me and another player and had his character assassinate our characters. Tom let the event stand as played, and Dasper was no more.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Warrens of Zagovor

[Project done for a cooperative campaign setting design project, circa Feb. 2005]
The Warrens of Zagovor
by Scott Casper and Bruce Benz (ed.)

History, Politics, and Sociology

Times were tough for the Trade City of Zagovor 350 years ago. With a shrinking population and few remaining resources, the city needed help. Quiet inquiries were made, and answered by Baron Cenlarco of the dwarven courts. Cenlarco graciously lent a survey team to Zagovor to see if anything of value could be mined from the limestone caves beneath the city. After scouring the surrounding land, the dwarves managed to find deposits of coal and tin. They also found a petrified forest buried here. These would produce little wealth for Zagovor alone, but eventually proved instrumental in jump-starting the flagging local economy.

The humans did not have the skilled labor to do their own mining, and so Cenlarco did them another favor. In return for feeding and clothing them for five years, 200 dwarven workers would be lent to Zagovor for the same duration. The baron was not being a naive samaritan, however. Instead of his best workers, he culled from his clan the laziest and least productive dwarves he could find. Perhaps he hoped the effort would fail, Zagovor would no longer ask for his help, yet he would look cooperative and useful in the eyes of the human kings for his effort. But then something unexpected happened. The dwarves who had balked at the grueling pace of their jobs back home found Zagovor much to their liking. They were able to connect to a series of pre-existing caves, which sped their digging tremendously. They found ample recreation to their liking in and around the city proper. Those who didn't share their kin's love of mining found good-paying employment as guards.

Three hundred years ago, the population of dwarves in Zagovor was steadily growing. The dwarves carved out homes for themselves a mere half-mile from the city proper and connected their tunnels to the Galil River. Here, in a scooped out pair of caves, they established the official docks of Zagovor. At that time, the dwarves were still looked down upon, if not openly ridiculed, by most people in Zagovor. The tunnels and caves the dwarves had made for themselves were derisively called the "warrens." The dwarven community had a self-appointed leader, Dercallor Tursto. Tursto good-humoredly began keeping rabbits, and the rabbit became the mascot animal of the Warrens. The dwarven militia forming for the defense of the mines and their homes dubbed themselves the Coslo Gualor, or "Warren Guardians."

Two hundred sixty-two years ago, a middle-aged Dercallor Tursto announced to the city council that the warrens were "completed," and invited them to come see. This startled the council, who expected small, dirty tunnels. Abrum Volstikov, one council member, later wrote in his book A Personal History of Zagovor, "Our trepidation was, to some extent, justified. The ceilings, particularly in the tunnels, were often no more than five feet in height. Yet there was also a hall with a vaulted ceiling three times that high. These dwarves seemed to know nothing of painting or color, but their homes were amongst the most decorative I have ever seen. Wrought iron seemed to be everywhere, sculpted here into a dragon-shaped torch sconce and there into a seemingly ivy-choked door frame. Even the walls were coated with iron up to a height of two feet, decorated with patterns, like metal wainscoting. Most impressive, though, was the geometry of the place. There was no sign of twisting tunnels as we had imagined, but rather perfectly flat and level floors and walls. We had the impression that every inch of these 'warrens' had been painstakingly measured out and, though I have never seen a map of them, I suspect the warrens are laid out in a perfectly symmetrical pattern, as well."

What had seemed so unusual to human eyes was immediately recognizable to a dwarf. The warrens had been laid out in the style of fivello ferlar, roughly translatable as "the iron level." In larger dwarven communities, the iron level is reserved for the upper lower social class. Yet, even by the time the iron level was finished, there was a faction of dwarves living well beyond those means in Zagovor. While the miners and dock workers continued to live in the fivello ferlar, it became popular for nearly a century for dwarven craftsmen to build homes above ground in the city proper. All were well-built, and many were made of stone, so that most buildings that survived the war 125 years ago were dwarf-made.

It must also be noted here that since the original work was completed, further explorations have been made. There are two other chambers opened on this level, which is established above the docks, but still well below street level. The main chamber has also been opened downward to give the level more room. Neither of the two new areas are as symmetrical as the original. The newest area is actually a cave made of quartz and petrified trees. Expert workers have reshaped the area a bit looking for ways to expand the room into other caves. A few buildings have been created here, very carefully, in and around the natural beauty. This is a major tourist draw for the warrens, but was only discovered about 180 years ago.

The dwarf craftsman class soon became ambitious. They lobbied the city council to give them a seat as early as 221 years ago. When they were rebuffed, there was talk of an all-dwarf strike. This effort was led by a fiery-tempered dwarf named Farellor Drusto. Nothing ever came of the strike, and no dwarf would sit on the city council for many years still, but Drusto became profitably influential out of the situation, both amongst dwarves and men. It was he who campaigned for the construction of the fivello arslarco ("treated wood level"). This would be a subsection of the warrens for the middle to upper middle class of dwarves, most of whom were then living on the surface. Over time, many of them were convinced to return to the warrens, mostly through Drusto's personal persuasive skills. Although Drusto never made a public grab for leadership of the warrens, it was well known that no love was lost between Drusto and Tursto. An aging Dercallor Tursto saw Drusto as a rabble-rouser and politicked against him at every turn. Whether or not the warrens needed expansion became the primary issue between them, delaying its eventual completion by many years.

One hundred-seventy-five years ago, the fivello arslarco was almost done when the diggers discovered a spring. The water was clearly coming from somewhere much deeper than the rivers. It was cold and refreshing to drink -- and inhabited. Small fairy creatures, soon identified as nixies, dwelt in the underground source of the spring and some soon began appearing in the pool that collected in the dig site. Work halted for a time as the dwarves debated what to do. It was nearly decided to cap off the spring and move the construction in a different direction when Farellor Drusto suggested they try to communicate with the nixies. The dwarven clergy residing in the warrens were able to speak to the nixies and learned that the fairies greatly desired to be reconnected to the outside world. It was the dwarves who hit upon a mutual solution: they would dig a subterranean canal from the spring to the Galil River in exchange for use of the canal as a prime source of drinking water for the warrens. Previously, water had been transported from the docks area of Zagovor down steeply sloped tunnels in barrels.

One hundred-seventy-two years ago, the warren's dwarves again invited the city council to visit and see what they had built. This time, almost half of the council came. They were truly astounded. The new level of the warrens was entirely covered in beautifully crafted wood, and the floors and walls were in turn covered in rugs and tapestries such as the warrens had never produced before. Word quickly spread of the wonders of the warrens. The dwarves there developed a reputation as miracle-workers, having made so much with so few resources -- especially when the rumor began to spread that their canal was enchanted by the nixies to have healing powers. Tourism came to the warrens. No one has ever learned how the healing waters rumor was started, but 100 years later the truth was finally revealed about how the fivello arslarco was finished. Dercallor Tursto had secretly contacted Baron Cenlarco and arranged for a loan of materials and extra labor. The rugs and tapestries had even come from the neighboring Haltrurian Principality of Seres.

This second level was built at and below the level of the river. The main room, built on the east side of the hill, has a section of rooms built above it, because a natural cave was found that could be exploited to build an auditorium that can seat 600 dwarves at a time. Numerous rooms are here for the caretakers of this area, and even a few dining areas for those who wish to eat before or after events. Two of the dining rooms are open most of the time to feed visitors. Theses two are known for their good dining, for dwarves.

One hundred-sixty-three years ago, the Coslo Gualor asked to cooperate with the city's human dock guards. Only a minority of dwarves still worked the docks, or belonged to the locally infamous "dwarven bargemen." Still, the warren community saw it in their interests, if not their responsibility, to defend their own. The Dock Guard resisted, but ultimately caved into the wishes of the city council. The dwarves were an economic force to be reckoned with despite their small numbers, and the council courted them accordingly.

One hundred-fifty years ago, the dwarves parlayed their good reputations, collective wealth, and influence into a seat on the city council of Zagovor -- the first time it had ever been offered to a dwarf. It had long been assumed that the honor would go to Tursto, but he was old now and already grooming his replacement. Drusto campaigned for the role but lost. Decades of success had made the dwarves distrustful of Drusto's liberal stance and he was no longer the driving force he had been in the community. Tursto's hand-picked successor was Ormallor Jalassano. He served the council ably, though not boldly, for 21 years.

An unusual event occurred 129 years ago. The nixies began disappearing. There were multiple sightings of a large river serpent, certainly rare this far north, both in the rivers and the canal in the warrens. The evidence suggested that the snake was eating the nixies, but the truth was never ascertained. The nixies grew quiet on the subject, and in 10 months had abandoned the area. The serpent, whether there really was one or not, was dubbed Mareserlar. Bounties were offered on the serpent throughout Zagovor, even while it became a sort of mascot for delinquent youths. The incident was largely forgotten well before the Great Fire.

One hundred-twenty-five years ago, Zagovor was ravaged by the war that was sweeping the lands at that time. Fire raged throughout the city, and the damage was so widespread that not even the warrens were wholly spared. Roughly half of the fivello arslarco was gutted. The city above had to be almost completely rebuilt. The aftermath of the war is better chronicled elsewhere, but is important here for the radical change it brought about in the city's government. The old council was thrown out and replaced by a council. Ormallor Jalassano was sent home, and told that the affairs of dwarves would be handled by a council of all the races. The major dwarf on the council is now Guildmaster of Metalworkers Sazat. He does not represent all of the dwarves, but he is a major influence in their favor.

One hundred-one years ago, the city council informed the dwarves that they were dumping too much waste into the Galil River. The dwarves complied by adopting a played-out stone quarry two miles south of the city and converting it into a garbage dump. The quarry began to refill slowly, and is now quite a mound of upturned dirt and rock.

Eight-seven years ago, the dwarves in the warrens began to spot spider gnomes trespassing in the less-used passages. Alarmed, the dwarves formed hunting parties to scour every tunnel of both the warrens and all the mines. More than 50 spider gnomes in all were rounded up. They told a sad tale of how a schism in their tribe and sent them wandering homelessly, and they asked for sanctuary among the dwarves. Forty dwarven elders debated for two months whether to turn the gnomes away or not. In a decision that surprised almost everyone, it was decided that the gnomes could stay for 15 years, provided they behaved themselves, with the option of renewing their right to stay if they proved themselves useful (all of which, and more, was laid out in the historic document "Treaty of the Dwarves of Zagovor and the Gnomes of Besedirik").

Seventy-five years ago, cooperation began to break down between the Warren Guardians and the Dock Guard. There was concern in the warrens that the remaining dwarves "outside" would be left unprotected or intentionally victimized. It was the dwarven "boatmen" who assured the warren that they could protect their own. Though this group consisted of no more than a few dozen at any given time, their boisterous personalities had won them attention, and their strength and stamina had earned them the admiration of the humans who poled barges up and down the river. There was one particular incident that proved they could handle themselves. When a dwarf was badly injured in a dockside tavern, and a dozen boatmen -- both humans and dwarves -- made short work of the assailants. That tavern has been called "The Dwarven Boatman" ever since.

Sixty-five years ago, a crafts-dwarf named Gillor Lamasso crafted a gold armband of such exquisite beauty that it was rushed to the dwarven council of elders. They all quickly agreed that this was the finest sample of craftsmanship yet made in the warrens. According to custom, the armband was paraded through each level of the community for all to come see. It was a blessing for the community, for just seven years earlier it had been publicly revealed that the warrens still owed money to the very old Baron Cenlarco. The armband was offered to him as compensation, more than making up for any interest on the loan. Furthermore, it once again cemented their local reputation as master craftsmen. Lamasso was awarded the title of "master goldsmith," and holds that post to this day.

Perhaps attracted by rumors that the armband, or others like it, still existed in the warrens, the dwarves began having problems with human thieves 48 years ago. The serpent Mareserlar was their symbol, and each member wore a snake tattoo. The thieves proved surprisingly elusive, even to the dwarves who knew every inch of their own warrens. Or at least almost every inch. It turned out that the local thieves' guild had infiltrated the warrens by tunneling from a nearby cellar. Surprisingly, it was the gnomes that discovered the secret door, but it would take both the Coslo Gualor and the surface guardsmen of Zagovor over a year to finally root out and execute the last of the thieves. It is said, at least, that no thieves' guild has dared go underground in Zagovor since.

Thirty-six years ago, there was a minor crisis when it looked like the tin mines had played themselves out. Although the dwarves had parlayed their wealth well past the limits of their mineral resources, the tin mines were the "backbone" of the community -- not to mention much wealth had been borrowed against the mines. The diggers worked furiously to find a new deposit. Finally, an old favor was called in from the Mage School of Zagovor. In return for having dug the dungeons beneath the Mage School, a special wand was produced that discovered more tin a mile farther north than the mines had gone before. Work began anew.

Twenty-three years ago, the dwarves suffered another crisis! This time, the spring that produced most of their water became contaminated with green slime. It took weeks for the clergy to destroy all the green slime with miracles, during which the dwarves had to go back to the old ways of transporting river water into the warrens again. Yet this experience did have one positive aspect. Previously, the dwarves had grumbled about the City Council-- how they had lost their representation, and how the paladins had made them stop dumping so much in the river. Once the dwarves began drinking from the river again, they began to see the wisdom of the Council’s decision, and much of the grumbling has since gone away in the warrens, replaced by grudging respect.

Sixteen years ago, a census of the dwarven population revealed a shortage of new apprentices. For various reasons, though mostly weather and distance from other dwarven settlements, the warrens were not attracting new blood. A committee was formed to consider the matter which included on it a now-quite-old Farellor Drusto. The committee debated for almost a full year before agreeing to an unusual arrangement -- they encouraged the local craftsmen to begin accepting human apprentices. There had always been humans interested in learning the various trade of the dwarven masters, but had always been turned away out of hand. After nine years of more grumbling, two dwarves were finally willing to give it a try. Stular Imimmo and Fajol Bryno, artisans of brass and copper respectively, each bet the other they could take on a human apprentice. Seven years later, the experiment seems to be a success, and several other craftsmen are beginning to follow suit.

Timeline Summary
Year 2434 (350 years ago) Dwarves come to Zagovor
Year 2484 (300 years ago) Development of warrens begins, Warren Guardians formed
Year 2522 (262 years ago) First section of warrens completed
Year 2563 (221 years ago) Dwarves lobby for seat on City Council, work begins on second section of warrens
Year 2583 (201 years ago) Corrupt Barons of Zagovor replaced by Count Kozhan
Year 2609 (175 years ago) Magical spring is uncovered in the construction
Year 2612 (172 years ago) Second section finished
Year 2621 (163 years ago) A surge in dwarven population in the docks leads the Warren Guardians and Dock Guard to work together more
Year 2634 (150 years ago) Dwarves are given a seat on the City Council
Year 2655 (129 years ago) The nixies from the magic spring begin to disappear, apparently devoured by an unusual river serpent
Year 2660 (124 years ago) Great War nearly destroys Zagovor
Year 2683 (101 years ago) Dwarves adopt new waste dumping policy at the behest of City Council
Year 2697 (87 years ago) Spider gnomes first spotted in warrens
Year 2709 (75 years ago) Warren Guardians and Dock Guard break from each other
Year 2719 (65 years ago) Master craftsman's work celebrated
Year 2736 (48 years ago) Human thieves guild invades warrens
Year 2748 (36 years ago) Scarcity of tin causes dwarves to seek magical divination
Year 2761 (23 years ago) Magical spring infested with green slime
Year 2768 (16 years ago) Census taken in warrens
Year 2777 (7 years ago) First human apprentices are taken into the warrens

Justice Knights (fanfiction concept)

Justice Knights of the Round Table = Justice Society of America
King Artur Bendragon (= Sandman): Inherited Cornwall and Britain from his father Uter. He wields an enchanted sword, Calibrun, given him by the Lady of the Lake , that makes anyone struck by it fall asleep (and presumedly bleed to death). He rules from the City of London . His wife is a Roman noblewoman named Ganhumara. He is accompanied by his bastard son, Amr, and his dog, Cabal.
Queen Ganhumara Bendragon (= Red Tornado): Desires to be a knight and will often dress as one and seek adventure. Artur and his knights are aware of her deception and mock her ambitions.
Sir Bedwyr (= Flash): Welshman and Artur’s first recruited follower. Artur recently made him the Duke of Neustria. Bedwyr lost a hand when lightning struck him during the Battle of Mont. St. Michael, but that lightning bolt also gave him magical swiftness. He moves twice as fast as the swiftest falcon.
Sir Cei (pronounced Kay, = Hawkman): Artur’s half-Welsh nephew, Cei carries a magical shield with the device of a hawk on it and allows Cei to levitate and glide through the air. He is a powerful, almost unbeatable warrior and heavy drinker.
Bard Taliesin (= Johnny Thunder): Welsh bard who has traveled infrequently with Artur since Artur’s Annwyn campaign. Taliesin freed Dagda, a lesser god and former king of the tuatha de Danaan, from the Cauldron of Plenty in Annwyn. Dagda is now Taliesin’s companion and wields powerful magic to help him. Taliesin often finds himself in adventures for which his martial skills are inadequate, causing the knights to mock him.
Sir Peredur (= Dr. Fate): Welshman and Keeper of the Cauldron of Plenty. He can draw on great magical might from the Cauldron.
Sir Gwalchmei (= Hourman): Another of Artur’s nephews, Gawaine ate a magic apple while in Annwyn that granted him the strength of 12 men for one hour each morning.
Myrddin (= Spectre): Advisor to Artur, as he was to Uter before him, Myrddin is a half-human, half-demon prophet with great magical power.
Sir Drustanus (= Green Lantern): Pict prince loyal to King Mark and, above him, Artur. While in Ireland , Drustanus found a magic torch that burns with a green flame. The torch has other magic powers.
Sir Erec (= Atom): The newest, and a very promising, knight of the brand new Round Table. He is a Gaul and the most romantic of the knights. He is also the shortest of the knights.

Emergency Preparedness Article Submitted to Local Newspaper

[from Aug. 2006]
On Thursday, August 24th, State Representative Terry Parke hosted “Emergency Preparedness – Homeland Security & Avian Bird Flu Event” – and Poplar Creek Public Library was there! No, not on the speaker panel, but there in the audience taking notes. This was a genuinely informative seminar with a crack panel of knowledgeable speakers who had to answer to an audience that was enthusiastic about learning more. We learned a lot about how local government would respond to a pandemic that we can use to help educate our patrons better!

Terry Parke opened the panel discussion by bringing up the Streamwood microburst event of 1990. That was interesting because most people probably think of “emergency preparedness” as a recent buzz term, but the need for it has been here forever. Dr. Stephen Martin, Jr., Director of the Cook County Dept. of Public Health, set the tone of the evening by stressing that this was the government being honest and straightforward with the public about an important issue. In the case of a pandemic, he said, “The government will get everything right in the first 15 minutes. That’s the easy part; the hard part is the months of recovery that will come after.” He and another speaker from Cook County emphasized the need for faster vaccine development.

The Streamwood and Schaumburg police departments, even the FBI, all were represented and their speakers emphasized the cooperation between departments government now enjoys at all levels.

The Illinois Departments of Agriculture and Public Health, and Sherman Hospital , were represented and their speakers emphasized what the medical response would be specifically to an avian flu pandemic. Like the other departments, they emphasized the cooperative nature of hospitals and public health departments these days, but they also had hard numbers for what services they could offer to how many people in the unlikely event of avian flu spreading to humans in the U.S. There were helpful hints for family preparedness too, and a reminder to volunteer before an emergency happens so you can be trained to know what to do.

Some interesting things came up in the Q&A part of the session too. Someone brought up Citizen Corps as an opportunity for us all to help out. Someone else said the government needs to do more to get information to the people. Good thing so much of it is already at his local library!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

If I Ran Marvel Comics

[Originally posted to Superland in Nov. 2006]
If I ran Marvel

The following titles would continue to be published in their current
format, conditional on their sales figures remaining high:
Astonishing X-Men
Amazing Spider-Man
Ultimate Spider-Man
Uncanny X-Men
Ultimate X-Men
New Avengers
Ultimate Fantastic Four
Ms. Marvel

The following titles would be published in a "new, budget-conscious"
format – black and white and cheap, recycled paper. Cover price
would be dropped as low as it could go:

Fantastic Four
Captain America
Moon Knight
Ghost Rider
Heroes for Hire
Black Panther
Sensational Spider-Man
Incredible Hulk
Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man
Squadron Supreme
New X-Men
Iron Man
New Excalibur

All other titles would cease paper publication and be available
online via the web site, readable only by paid
subscribers. A subscriber could download a set number of any issues
per month without having to subscribe to specific titles.

[Sept. 2007 Addenda]

The above was a snap-shot of Marvel Comics at the time I wrote it. I did not mean to suggest, for example, that Ms. Marvel was so good a title it deserved its top 10 spot, but that it was selling that well at the time. The important formula here makes the comic book titles irrelevant -- the 10 best-selling titles get the quality publishing treatment, the 20 next best-selling titles would get the low-budget format (pulp comics, as disposable as comic books were in the early days, though not quite that cheap), and the rest would live on online. These positions would stay the same for one year.

At the end of that year, comics in each tier might be shifted up or down, depending on if their sales increased or decreased. If a comic book shifted up, it would not only be guaranteed a one-year shot at the higher tier, but 12 back issues would be reprinted in the better format.

These methodology would give fans the biggest say ever in how their favorite titles are published, while allow less popular titles to remain in publication without operating at such a loss. By reducing 2nd tier expenses as much as possible, it should be possible to reduce prices back down to a dollar or lower, allowing much more impulse shopping by marginal comic book fans.

Lastly, and not touched on by the past essay, is the importance of getting the comic books into widespread distribution and mainstream advertising, especially the mid-tier comics that are more likely going to attract impulse shoppers. Using all these methods, I would restore Marvel Comics to popularity and profit without relying on movie revenues.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Umbral Gloom Fiend from Dragon #353 retroconverted to AD&D 1st ed.

[Originally posted to Greytalk, April 2007]
Fiend, Umbral Gloom
No. Appearing: 1 or 1-6
Armor Class: -3
Move: 18”//18”
Hit Dice: 7+24
% in Lair: 5%
Treasure Type: B
No. of Attacks: 8 tentacles
Damage/Attack: 1-6/tentacle
Special Attacks: Engulf, spells
Special Defenses: +1 or better weapon to hit, regenerate 1 hp/rd, spells
Magic Resistance: 55%
Intelligence: Very
Alignment: Neutral Evil
Size: Large (9’ in diameter)
Psionic Attack Strength: 150
Attack/Defense Modes: E/F, G

Umbral glooms are servitors of an evil goddess, both summoned by her clergy and sent to punish them. Glooms appear to be masses of rubbery, glistening black tentacles studded with purple eyes of varying size. Although large, umbral glooms are made up mostly of shadow and are very light. They like to sneak up on their victims under cover of magical darkness and engulf them.

Umbral glooms have 120’ infra-vision, a 70% chance of hiding in shadows (as per thieves), and have a +4 bonus to saving throws vs. enchantment/charm and illusions. Once per day, a gloom can share this bonus by touch, lasting 7 rounds. Each strike with a tentacle requires a saving throw vs. spells or the victim suffers hopelessness (as per a symbol of hopelessness). A gloom can try to engulf one man-sized opponent or two small-sized opponents. Victims must save vs. wands or be engulfed; engulfed victims have a -2 penalty to hit, no chance of casting spells, and must save vs. hopelessness each round engulfed. In addition, glooms have the following spell-like abilities: darkness 15’ radius at will, knock 1/turn, teleport (to shadows within 360’ only) 1/turn, scare 3/day, plane shift (self to Demi-Plane of Shadow only) 3/day, and phantasmal killer 1/day. They are immune to blindness, cold, energy drain, poison, sleep, paralysis, and polymorph.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Frequency of Gods Worshipped in South Province

[Originally posted to Greytalk listserv in July 2005]
A project I have decided to revisit of late is the Draken Pantheon concept that I last shared with Greytalk back in 1999. I would like to follow up my Ahlissa Gazeteer with an article on the Draken Pantheon. For those not familiar with the concept, it's a pantheon that would be widely and officially recognized throughout the "Draken" (my name) Peninsula, that area on which South Province/Ahlissa, Onnwal, and Idee/Naerie are found.

The trouble was, I had three different versions of how deities ranked in the hierarchy of this pantheon, and they were all based on pre-Living Greyhawk sources. Wanting to include as much outside (my own) work as possible, I compiled deities from all three of my major revisions, Morgan Rodwell's Ahlissa article, deity lists from the Living Onnwal and Naerie groups, and the just-provided list from the Living Greyhawk Gazeteer (my copy is in storage). These are the only sources I am aware of that have tried to list deities worshipped in the region in order of importance (if "Ivid the Undying" did it, I don't recall such a section). For each deity list, I took the number of deities on it and assigned each deity points equal to where they were on the list, with first ranking highest. Then I added points for each deity, giving each a relative "weight" in importance/priority. I did ignore where "agricultural deities" were lumped together, as well as ignoring demi-human pantheons altogether. Ties were resolved by taking deities I had ranked higher first.

As a side note, since Zilchus headed the list with 99 points, it occured to me that I could make each number a percentage and say that each percentage gave the amount of people on the peninsula who recognize (if not revere) that deity. I tried to think beyond that to how this could become a game mechanic for assigning deities to NPC clerics quickly that would be weighted for frequency of worship (low rolls would mean obscure deities, where a very high roll would almost surely mean Zilchus). However, median rolls would make for a wealth of Procan clerics, which certainly would not fit well with my campaign.

Without further ado, the list in descending order is as follows:
1. Zilchus = 99%
2. Hextor = 70%
3. Procan = 52%
4. Xerbo = 47%
5. Fharlanghn = 45%
6. Beory = 42%
7. Norebo = 40%
8. Pholtus = 38% (but how many are dedicated monotheists?)
9. Olidammara = 32%
10. Heironeous = 30%
11. Kurell = 26%
12. Osperm = 25%
13. Nurell = 23%
14. Kord = 22%
15. Celestian = 20%
16. Delleb = 20%
17. Jascar = 20%
18. Fortubo = 19%
19. Pelor = 18%
20. Trithereon = 17%
21. Atroa = 16%
22. Ralishaz = 16%
23. Mayaheine = 16%
24. Velnius = 15%
25. Alia = 13%
25. Wee Jas = 12%
26. Phaulkon = 12%
27. Daern = 11%
28. Erythnul = 10%
29. Boccob = 10%
30. Syrul = 9%
31. Ehlonna = 8%
32. Bralm = 8%
33. Telchur = 7%
34. Llerg = 7%
35. Pyremius = 6%
36. Asmodeus = 5%
37. Obad-Hai = 5%
38. Incabulous = 5%
39. Kelanen = 4%
40. Sotillion = 4%
41. Lydia = 3%
42. Wenta = 2%
43. Rudd = 2%
44. Geshtai = 1%
45. Tharizdun = 1%

An Alternate Campaign Path

Campaign Overview
The goal of this campaign would be to re-experience a wealth of Old School gaming in as short a time as possible, taking a tour of various classic modules, game settings, and early incarnations of the D&D rules.

Year 1
Month 1 (representing 1971)
Rules: Chainmail
Setting: Castle Blackmoor
PCs: 1st level
PCs, newbies all, decide to explore that old haunted castle.

Month 2 (1972)
Rules: Blackmoor house rules
Setting: Town of Blackmoor
PCs: 2nd level
The PCs explore the surrounding town between delves into the castle dungeon.

Month 3 (1973)
Rules: same
Setting: Environs of Blackmoor
PCs: 3rd level
The PCs are attracting attention around town and are being asked to take care of things outside the city, like securing Wolf’s Head Pass.

Month 4 (1974)
Rules: D&D, 1st ed.
Setting: Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure (El Raja Key)
PCs: 4th level
The PCs are asked to go to Glendower to explore Maure Castle .

Month 5 (1975)
Rules: D&D, 1st ed., with Greyhawk & Blackmoor
Setting: Temple of the Frog
PCs: 5th level
The PCs learn of shenanigans going on at the temple and need to deal with them.

Month 6 (1976)
Rules: D&D, 1st ed., supplements I-IV
Setting: Lost Caverns of Tsjoconth
PCs: 6th level
Learning of the lost treasure trove, the PCs go treasure hunting!

Month 7 (1977)
Rules: D&D, 1st ed., + AD&D Monster Manual
Setting: City State of the Invincible Overlord
PCs: 7th level
The PCs find a magic portal that leads to the city state. The PCs are unknowns there, but could become somebodies here!

Month 8 (1978)
Rules: AD&D, 1st ed. (MM, PH)
Setting: Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl
PCs: 8th level
The PCs are hired to deal with a cursed valley full of giants near the city.

Month 9 (1979)
Rules: AD&D, 1st ed. (MM, PH, DMG)
Setting: Village of Hommlet
PCs: 9th level
A high priest of Lolth and his forces are hiding out in the moathouse by this large village.

Month 10 (1980)
Rules: AD&D, 1st ed. (MM, PH, DMG, FF)
Setting: Isle of Dread
PCs: 10th level
While sailing back to Blackmoor, the PCs land on the Isle.

Month 11 (1981)
Rules: AD&D, 1st ed.
Setting: Assault on the Aerie of the Slavelords
PCs: 11th level
The PCs, now barons of Blackmoor, go to Suderham (read, Maus) to deal with those darn slavelords.

Month 12 (1982)
Rules: AD&D, 1st ed.
Setting: Lost City
PCs: 12th level
A curse laid on the PCs by the slavelords trap them in a buried pyramid full of monsters.

Year 2
Month 1 (1983)
Rules: AD&D, 1st ed. (+MM2)
Setting: Ravenloft
PCs: 13th level
The magic portal under the pyramid that led to “freedom” instead leads to the domain of a vampiric arch-mage.

Month 2 (1984)
Rules: AD&D, 1st ed.
Setting: Dragons of Despair
PCs: 14th level
The lands neighboring the vampire’s domain are plagued by gigantic dragons.

Month 3 (1985)
Rules: AD&D, 1st ed. (+UA, OA)
Setting: Temple of Elemental Evil
PCs: 15th level
The way home for the PCs is guarded by a demon princess and hidden in her elemental nodes.

Month 4 (1986)
Rules: AD&D, 1st ed. (+DSG, WSG)
Setting: Treasure Hunt
PCs: 16th level
The PCs arrive on an island near Blackmoor, where they easily best the local gnolls.

Shazam Family Archives vol. 1 Graded

Master Comics #23 “Capt. Nazi’s Assassination Plot.” Grade: A. Heavy on coincidence, but exciting and historically relevant.
Master Comics #24 “Death by Radio.” Grade: A-. A clever crime in the debut of otherwise B-grade villain, Mr. Macabre.
Master Comics #25 “The Case of the Face in the Dark.” Grade: B+. Not a logical chain of events, but Jr. stopping an invasion of Alaska is a great ending.
Master Comics #26 “The Return of Mr. Macabre.” Grade: B+. Turning Macabre green may have made him less interesting.
Master Comics #27 “Captain Nazi and the Blackout Terror.” Grade: A-. First in a series of adventures that are clearly set in Europe, with England being used as Jr.’s home base.
Master Comics #28 “Hitler’s Headquarters of Horror.” Grade: A+. A well-constructed “get-in, get-out” adventure tale highlighted by Freddy disguising himself as a short Nazi major and (maybe?) capturing Hitler.
Master Comics #29 “The Iron Heel of the Huns.” Grade: A. A solid, credible tale of the problems facing a resistance movement.
Master Comics #30 “Captain Marvel Jr. Saves the Doomed Army.” Grade: A-. A disturbing tale of Capt. Nazi poisoning U.S. troops – too disturbing for the light punishment Capt. Nazi keeps getting.
Master Comics #31 “The Case of the Missing Ambassador.” Grade: B+. Mr. Macabre is running a spy ring now. His only superpower seems to be his ability to take a lot of punishment from Jr.
Master Comics #32 “The Cripple Crimes.” Grade: B-. A weirdly ineffective tale of a Fagin-like corrupter of poor kids. Dr. Krool is more effective when he’s threatening kids with a Tommy gun than when he’s hiding behind some curious legal document that Jr. has to waste time stealing.
Captain Marvel Jr. #1
“Wings over Dazaggar!” Grade: B+. Another exciting, though not nearly as well drawn, encounter with Capt. Nazi.
“The Shadow that Walked.” Grade: B-. A sudden shift in the oeuvre has Jr. tackling urban crime and a mystery foe that any non-powered superhero could have handled.
“The Case of the Cripple Kidnappers.” Grade: C+. Capt. Marvel Jr. is starting to look more like Johnny Thunder than Capt. Marvel, as he takes on a gang of insurance scammers, including a man in drag for no apparent reason.
“The Cracked Safecracker.” Grade: C-. Magic powers are easier to believe in than this tale of elderly parents so naïve that they have no clue their son is a criminal.
Captain Marvel Adventures #18. Grade: B. Mary Marvel debuts in a goofy tale, highlighted by some rare comic exchanges between Billy and Freddy as well as the humor of seeing the vastly different art style of each character side-by-side. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that Mary Marvel is hot.

Friday, September 7, 2007

An (Alternate) Opening to a Blackmoor Campaign

It is unusual for any of you to be riding in a wagon train, but the circumstances of this trip are most singular. Each of you was recently in trouble with the law in either the Town of Blackmoor or the Town of Vestfold. For your particular crime, you faced anything from a few days of imprisonment to death by execution. But, before you could see a magistrate, you were each interviewed by the man you now share a wagon with.
“The Fetch,” as he called himself, was a sharp-featured man with a long, pointed nose, a dark, straight brow, and black hair. He offered each of you a choice – face your judgments, or come do him a favor. Nothing further was explained – until now.
“I chose each of you because you have unusual abilities, a low profile, and a willingness to take risks. There is something…amiss in the Village of Gomchut. I am sure that, if I sent my people, they would not find anything. I need a wild card to play, something that will stir things up in Gomchut without chasing anything away. Your job is to stay in Gomchut and find out what is amiss there. Until such time as you do, you are exiled from the Towns of Vestfold and Blackmoor and not to return to either on penalty of death. You can report to Bram von Cartlandt, the head enchanter at Gomchut Keep, with any progress you make. But do not expect help from him. In a moment, you will be on your own.”
With that, The Fetch taps the shoulder of the wagon driver and the driver calls for a halt. He reins in his draft horses as the drivers of the wagons in front of and behind yours do likewise. You rode alone with the Fetch and his driver, but the other two wagons held heavily-armed guards just in case your compliance had to be forced. Now the Fetch is asking you to climb off the wagon. “You’ll walk from here, to draw less attention to yourselves than…well, I am sure you will draw enough attention on your own,” he ends with a smile.

Fletcher “The Fetch” Willems, master thief: AC T 10.
8 heavy cavalrymen.
1 driver/theurgist.
1 driver/curate.

Q & A with the Fletch:
Q: “Who do you work for?”
A: “That is no secret. I am in the employ of Arch-Duke Bestmo. I …fetch people for him.”
Q: “Does this mean we work for the Arch-Duke now?”
A: “No it does not. You work for me, and even then unofficially.”

Stretching from the Town of Vestfold to the Town of Lake Gloomy south and west of it, the Hemplas Road is dry sanctuary from the marshlands that surround it along much of its length. The road itself is atop a raised earthen mound about 40 ft. wide and 5 to 10 ft. higher than the marshes below. There are milestones, but many are missing and you usually pass a milestone only once ever 3-4 miles. Tall, skinny trees grow in rows on either side of the mound. Scattered trees and shrubs dot the marshes. The marshlands had been gently rolling down to the south and east where they feed into Noord Wiet Lake, but up ahead the land flattens and rises to a level, grassy plain. This grassy plain is more like a pass, though, as you are passing through the 4-mile stretch between Noorden Lake to the north and Zuidelik Lake to the south. Noorden Lake is the closer, coming as close as a mile away from the road. Zuidelik Lake is slightly lower in elevation that Noorden, and the Zuidelik is fed by several streams flowing south from the Noorden. Where the streams cross the road, the road continues over them via wooden bridges. By each bridge is a wooden watchtower which typically houses 1-4 lightly armed and armored sentries. Such light security seems remarkable, considering that horrible island, the Egg of Coot, is less than 70 miles north of here.

ENCOUNTERS ON THE ROAD #1: Four miles from Gomchut, the PCs intercept, by chance, 5 kobolds crossing over the road from north to south. The kobolds have abandoned the Caves of Chaos and are looking for work elsewhere, but it will be very difficult for the PCs to learn this, as the kobolds most likely know none of the party’s dialects.
5 kobolds: AC 12 (hvy hide); MV 20’; HD 1+2; hp 9, 8, 7, 6 (x2); #At 1 pick; Dmg 1d10; SA magic stone 1/hour; STR 13, INT 8, DEX 10, CON 14; AL NE; XP 30 each; 3 1/2’ tall spirit-folk with red eyes, flat, broad black noses, slimy skin, scaly tails, and double-jointed arms. Treasure: 10 cp, 18 sp between them.
ENCOUNTERS ON THE ROAD #2: Two miles from Gomchut, the PCs see a man riding a pony toward them. He introduces himself as Arjan the Sentry, Patroller of the Hemplas Road. He acts not at all surprised to learn of monsters crossing the road this close to Gomchut, but volunteers to accompany the PCs back to Gomchut to help keep them safe. Along the way, he quizzes the PCs about their capabilities. Arjan is actually the leader of a small group of roadside thieves lurking just a mile outside Gomchut.
Arjan the Sentry, bully: AC 16 (b&g, helm, padded, shield, DEX); MV 30’; T 2; hp 8; #At 1 spear or 1 hand axe; Dmg 1d6; SA thief skills – after removing armor; STR 13, INT 11, WIS 10, DEX 14, CON 12, CHA 13; AL CN; XP 30; 5’9” tall human with sandy blonde hair, crooked nose, and clean-shaven. Treasure: 1 gp, 5 ep, 9 sp, 8 cp.
ENCOUNTERS ON THE ROAD #3: Arjan’s bandits are hiding in the ditch to either side of the road just a mile outside Gomchut. They wait for a signal from Arjan to attack. They have a 4 in 6 chance to surprise.
Arjan’s 5 bandits: AC 15 (hide, shield); MV 30’; F 1; hp 8, 7 (x2), 6 (x2); #At 1 club or 1 hand axe; Dmg 1-6; STR 13, INT 8, DEX 12, CON 11; AL CN; XP 20 each. Treasure: 7 sp, 15 cp between them.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Comic Book Archives Year-by-Year

The rules of this game are to find good (if not the best) reprint volumes (of consecutive issues) to represent each year since Superman first appeared, without using two volumes of the same title or series in a row. Note in parentheses is publisher, or OOP for Out Of Print.

1938: Superman Archives, vol. 1 (DC)
1939: Superman: the Action Comics Archives, vol. 1 (DC)
1940: Shazam! Archives, vol. 1 (DC)
1941: Will Eisner’s Spirit Archives, vol. 2 (DC)
1942: Plastic Man Archives, vol. 1 (DC)
1943: Batman Archives, vol. 3 (DC)
1944: Will Eisner’s Spirit Archives, vol. 8 (DC)
1945: Plastic Man Archives, vol. 4 (DC)
1946: Batman Archives, vol. 5 (DC)
1947: All-Star Comics Archives, vol. 7 (DC)
1948: Will Eisner’s Spirit Archives, vol. 17 (DC)
1949: All Star Comics Archives, vol. 10 (DC)
1950: Masterworks Series of Great Comic Book Artists, vol. 1 (DC, OOP)
1951: Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Heroes (Marvel)
1952: World’s Finest Comics Archives, vol. 1 (DC)
1953: Tor Archives (DC)
1954: Showcase Presents: Superman Family, vol. 1 (DC)
1955: World’s Finest Comics Archives, vol. 1 (DC)
1956: Challengers of the Unknown Archives, vol. 1 (DC)
1957: Flash Archives, vol. 1 (DC)
1958: Superman: the Man of Tomorrow Archives, vol. 1 (DC)
1959: Sgt. Rock Archives, vol. 1 (DC)
1960: Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, vol. 1 (DC)
1961: Sgt. Rock Archives, vol. 3 (DC)
1962: Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four, vol. 1 (Marvel)
1963: Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 1 (Marvel)
1964: Marvel Masterworks: Avengers, vol. 1 (Marvel)
1965: Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 3 (Marvel)
1966: Marvel Masterworks: Captain America, vol. 1 (Marvel)
1967: Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four, vol. 6 (Marvel)
1968: Marvel Masterworks: Silver Surfer, vol. 1 (Marvel)
1969: Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four, vol. 8 (Marvel)
1970: Essential Avengers, vol. 4 (Marvel)
1971: Essential Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 5 (Marvel)
1972: Essential Doctor Strange, vol. 2 (Marvel)
1973: Essential Hulk, vol. 4 (Marvel)
1974: Essential Marvel Team-Up, vol. 1 (Marvel)
1975: Essential Marvel Two-In-One, vol. 1 (Marvel)
1976: Essential Howard the Duck, vol. 1 (Marvel)
1977: Essential Nova, vol. 1 (Marvel)
1978: Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, vol. 1 (Marvel)
1979: Marvel Masterworks: X-Men, vol. 1 (Marvel)
1980: New Teen Titans Archives, vol. 1 (DC)
1981: Marvel Masterworks: X-Men, vol. 3 (Marvel)

Not George Washington Review

Not George Washington is a novel P.G. Wodehouse co-wrote before his more famous Jeeves and Wooster stories, but I can still hear the voice of Hugh Laurie playing James Orlebar Cloyster (and can imagine Stephen Fry as Briggs, if he could suffer a part so small). The novel is billed as an autobiography, which makes it seem odd that a) the novel is co-written by Wodehouse’s friend, Herbert Westbrook, b) the novel is narrated by four different characters, and a) that the main character of Cloyster is a cad and a bounder. Since the whole book skewers the literary field of London circa 1904, I suppose the “autobiographical” part is not to be trusted, though the introduction assures us that much of Wodehouse’s early experience as a writer is on display here. The curt narrative of the long-suffering girlfriend Margaret leads the novel and only serves to endear her to the reader and make Cloyster look all the more caddish later when he’s prepared to dump her.

The real highlights of the novel — and all the fun — come during Cloyster’s narrative, with the satirizing of cash-strapped Bohemia, Cloyster using his early rejection slips for wallpaper, and the assemblage of quirky characters he meets during his bachelor days, including the ever-napping Julian Eversleigh and John Hatton, the rollerskating reverend. Eventually, Cloyster becomes almost ridiculously successful as a writer (it would be unbelievable if Wodehouse himself had not become so successful), but his world falls apart when he decides to hold onto it longer without telling Margaret he’s well-off enough to marry her now. His deceptions, both of friends and self, soon lead to conspiracies (orchestrated by the other narrators) against him that, while not as funny as the earlier part of the novel, are certainly well-deserved. And yet all ends well. Well, except maybe for Margaret. Her prize at the end hardly seems to justify the three painful years she spent loyally pining away for her bounder of a boyfriend. To the modern audience, her treatment probably seems rather sexist. Also uncomfortable is the then-more-acceptable romance between cousins (Julian and Eva) and the …I’m not sure what to make of the scene in the men’s club – the Barrel — Cloyster attends. It reads to my modern sensibilities to be the start of a gay orgy, but the English audience of 1907 may have read it more innocently than that. Still, quibbles aside, it was a fun, easy read that left me thinking about my own literary ambitions afterward.

Favorite Comic Book Titles by Year - pt. 2

1972- Mr. Miracle (2)(runner-up: New Gods)
Mr. Miracle was not consistently good by any means, but it had some great stories.
I actually have nothing from 1973!
1974 – Batman
Batman was part-new stories and part-reprints at this time, and the reprints were much better!
1975 – Avengers (runner-up: Amazing Spider-Man)
Steve Englehart “woke up” the Avengers to greatness again, especially towards the end of his run.
1976 –Howard the Duck (runner-up: Amazing Spider-Man)
And then Steve Gerber’s hilarious social satire seemed to spring out of nowhere and fade just as fast.
1977 – Avengers (runner-up: Amazing Spider-Man)
When your rotating artists include John Byrne and George Perez, how can you go wrong?
1978 – Marvel Team-Up
An off-year for Marvel with a B title like this is your best, but Claremont and Byrne were already showing what they could do together here.
1979 – Avengers
The writing baton passed to David Micheline and the Avengers just started getting even better!
1980 – Avengers (runner-up: Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man)
And his stint continued with gems like this:
1981 – Fantastic Four (runner-up: Avengers)
But then you’ve got John Byrne taking over the FF, writing, drawing, AND inking, and then you’ve got Nirvana. This is the title that changed me from a comic book fan to a fanatic.
1982 – Fantastic Four (runner-up: Avengers)
Byrne was wrapping up his back-to-basics approach by now and creating a title where characters actually changed and grew over time! An insanely novel concept for superheroes, circa 1982.
1983 – Fantastic Four (runner-up: Avengers)
More fantastic issues of Byrne’s master run.
1984 – Fantastic Four (runner-up: Mighty Thor)
Byrne gets real experimental with the FF, but it works.
1985 – Fantastic Four (runner-up: Mighty Thor)
I liked it better when Byrne was doing his own inks, but it’s still great.
1986 – Fantastic Four (runner-up: Avengers)
And here’s a taste of how good it was:
1987 – Avengers (runner-up: West Coast Avengers)
Byrne is gone from the FF and it slumps. Roger Stern, who taught Byrne much of what he knew on writing with style, has meanwhile pumped up the Avengers to amazing levels.
1988 – Avengers (runner-up: Fantastic Four)
Stern’s run ends with a bang mid-year, followed by a less-inspired, but still good run by Walt Simonson.
1989 – Sensational She-Hulk (runner-up: West Coast Avengers)
Byrne ran with Stern’s efforts to make She-Hulk interesting and made her funny, innovative, and for (only) 10 issues, a must-read.
1990 – Fantastic Four (runner-up: Incredible Hulk)
Simonson left the Avengers for the FF to start one of his best stints ever, including one of the best sci-fi epics in comics – the Black Celestial Saga (!
1991 – Fantastic Four (runner-up: Incredible Hulk)
Simonson’s run ends in controversy, but still highlighted by innovation (,8599,104312,00.html ).
1992 – Bone (runner-up: Justice Society of America)
And then, suddenly, superheroes didn’t matter so much anymore. Editor-in-Chief Tom Defalco had flushed Marvel down the toilet and DC was only starting to come into its own again. On the fringe of comicdom was the greatest independent comic of all time ( )!
1993 – Bone (runner-up: Justice Society of America)
Bone peaks, and comic book-dom has still not found a way to surpass it.
1994 – Bone (runner-up: Batman Adventures)
Bone begins to turn a little darker, and DC is gaining fast, riding the success of one of the best TV shows of all time, Batman: the Animated Series.
1995 – Bone (runner-up: Batman Adventures)
The year I actually discovered Bone (with back issues and trade paperbacks snatched up as quickly as I could find them).
1996 – Bone (runner-up: Kingdom Come)
Mark Waid and Alex Ross make one of the best superhero stories of all time, and it still couldn’t beat the magic that was Bone.
1997 – Bone (runner-up: Kurt Busiek’s Astro City)
Nor could Kurt Busiek dethrone Bone!
1998 – Bone (runner-up: Marvel Universe)
…But, by now, the magic was starting to wear thin on Bone. It was still good, but the “Rock Jaw” story arc never reached greatness.
1999 – Tom Strong (runner-up: Bone)
Alan Moore has never been better than when he tried his hand at optimistic comic books (though he could not keep his cynicism out of it for long).
2000 – Meridian (runner-up: Bone)
Very promising fantasy/super-heroine series from CrossGen – the company that kept its promises for about the first two years.
2001 – Ruse (runner-up: Bone)
This could easily have been Mark Waid’s best series ever if he had kept at the level of the first three issues, but problems at CrossGen kept Waid from trying harder.
2002 – Usagi Yojimbo (runner-up: Bone)
Time for a nod to the incredibly long-lived and incredibly good story of a samurai rabbit that has not been off my top ten list ever since I discovered it.
2003 –Jack Staff (runner-up: Bone)
From across the pond, Paul Grist showed us an amazingly nonlinear method of telling a superhero story.
2004 – Fantastic Four (runner-up: Bone)
I thought it couldn’t be done after so long, but Waid managed to make the FF relevant again with his amazing “Hereafter” storyline.
2005 - Usagi Yojimbo (runner-up: Knights of the Dinner Table)
The rabbit never gets stale, as “The Treasure of the Mother of Mountains” shows that Usagi can be used in any number of epic adventures.
2006 - Agents of Atlas
More fun than a comic book with so much cussing in it has any right to be.
2007 - Shazam: Monster Society of Evil
Not exactly Captain Marvel, but more like Jeff Smith dressing up characters from Bone and Pogo in superhero costumes -- still a lot of fun.
2008 - Spirit (runner-up: Tiny Titans)
A workman-like stint by esteemed funnymen Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones, no doubt intended to show their range and instead showing their strength lies in humor.
2009 - Justice Society of America (runner-up: Tiny Titans)
Geoff Johns' swan song on the JSA is a testament to how charming the superhero genre can be.
2010 - Tiny Titans (runner-up: Traveler)
Art Baltazar's super fun tribute to the Fun in Comics.
2011- Tiny Titans
Aw yeah!
2012 - Tiny Titans
Tiny Titans is canceled and the comic book industry, in essence, died.

...Well, I thought that was the end of things for a time, but then I got into Batman: L'il Gotham late in 2013. It reminded me of the continuity-lite Batman Adventures based on the TV series.  And then Steam Wars, the steampunk version of Star Wars, came out from Antarctic Press in 2014. So maybe the industry isn't quite dead yet....

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Favorite Comic Book Titles by Year - pt. 1

1937 – Detective Comics (Bruce Nelson)
Of the serialized features I’ve seen reprinted in pre-Batman issues, Bruce Nelson’s oriental intrigues were the best drawn and most interesting.
1938 – Action Comics (Superman)
Creativity and raw, primal energy bursts off every page of the super-vigilante/activist, Superman.
1939 – Action Comics (Superman)
Superman is already starting to be changed by his own success, but is still great. (runner-up tie: All-American Comics for Scribbly and Smash Comics for Black X and John Law)
1940 – Whiz Comics (Captain Marvel)
Quickly eclipsing Superman, the more colorful, more fun, and more powerful Captain Marvel (runner-up: Batman)
1941 – Whiz Comics (Captain Marvel)
The ingenuity that was disappearing from Superman by now was all turning up here. (runner-up: Action Comics for Superman)
1942 – Detective Comics (Batman)
…But for the best rogues gallery, that was shaping up to be Batman’s. (runner-up: All-Star Comics for JSA)
1943 - Police Comics (Plastic Man)
After an uneven first two years, Plastic Man finally became a joy to both look at and read. (runner-up: All-Star Comics for JSA)
1944 – Police Comics (Plastic Man)
Consistently fun and funny. (runner-up: Spirit)
1945 – Police Comics (Plastic Man)
And innovative storytelling. (runner-up: Batman)
1946 – All-Star Comics (Justice Society of America)
Always fun, although uneven.
(runner-up: Stuntman Comics)
1947 – All-Star Comics (Justice Society of America)
They get better over time....
1948 - All-Star Comics
At least the best titles do, while the rest of comicdom became domesticated to the point of boredom.
1949 – Batman (runner-up: Adventure Comics for Johnny Quick)
As the creative teams refined formulas, the best titles became formulaic, but very good formulas!
1950 – Adventure Comics (Shining Knight)
Or, they could just get Frank Frazetta to draw it!
1951 - Two-Fisted Tales
But by now none of the superheroes were cutting it anymore.
1952 – Star-Spangled Comics (Tomahawk)
Frank here too...
1953 - Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge
Still no superheroes left in sight...
1954 – Batman
Until now. Something had happened to re-energize Batman. The stories are more fun and feel more fresh again.
1955 – Batman (runner-up: Congo Bill)
And more of the same.
1956 – Showcase (for Flash II) (runner-up: World’s Finest Comics for Superman & Batman)
The Silver Age Flash, the Challengers of the Unknown -- this was a terrific year for new concepts.
1957 – Detective Comics
More wacky Batman fun.
1958 – Adventure Comics (Green Arrow)
Jack Kirby delivers!
1959 – Our Army at War (Sgt. Rock) (runner-up: Showcase for Green Lantern II)
I’m no fan of war, but these stories speak of the human condition better than DC was doing with the superhero genre up to this point.
1960 – Justice League of America
I’m not really a fan of this either, but it was a slow year otherwise…
1961 – Fantastic Four
The FF was not great right off the bat, but it was good and promised great things from Marvel that would eclipse DC. This would be a good time for confessing I was a Marvel Zombie from 1975 to 1991…
1962 – Amazing Adult Fantasy (Spider-Man) (runner-up: Fantastic Four)
As good as the FF was, Spider-Man was simply so much better. It didn’t just speak of the human condition – if you were ever a shy, nerdy boy, it spoke directly to YOUR condition!
1963 – Amazing Spider-Man (runner-up: Fantastic Four)
More of Lee and Ditko’s amazing run…
1964 – Amazing Spider-Man (runner-up: Avengers)
…proved that innovation could be both fun and charming.
1965 – Amazing Spider-Man (runner-up: Avengers)
And sustained!
1966 – Fantastic Four (runner-up: Amazing Spider-Man)
For Marvel in general, each year’s worth of titles got better than the previous year, building up to this stellar year – but not for Spider-Man, which lost Ditko and much of its greatness.
1967 – Fantastic Four (runner-up: Avengers)
The FF was still on fire, and Roy Thomas was slowly transforming the Avengers into better than a second-best title.
1968 – Fantastic Four (runner-up: Captain America)
Although it was sometimes feeling rushed, the FF was still tops.
1969 - Silver Surfer (runner-up: Fantastic Four)
This title started out so great and went downhill so badly.
1970 - Avengers (runner-up: Fantastic Four)
The Avengers woke up out of a two-year lull as good as ever.
1971 - Mr. Miracle (runner-up: New Gods)
But Marvel’s star was declining and whenever Marvel declined, DC picked up the pace.

Superman Returns Review

I had the hardest time deciding what to give this movie for a grade. Oh, it’s safely in the A range. There is a lot to like here. It is true to both the Christopher Reeve Superman movies and, largely, to the comic books themselves, from 1945-1990. Jimmy Olson’s bowtie is there. Perry White says “Great Caesar’s Ghost” (and seeing Frank Langella in a movie is always a plus). There are several frames in the movie that are swipes of famous comic book covers. And Routh and Spacey are channeling Reeve and Hackman (but why not just hire Hackman…?).

But then there are the disappointments. Zero resolution (shame on you, for making a sequel so obvious, Singer!). Lois’ son’s sissy girl hair (a deliberate statement on when DC put Superman in long sissy girl hair?). While I give Singer some points for not making the Superman-as-Jesus parallels too obvious, they still bother me somewhat; being a Superman purist who prefers the 1938-1939 Superman who was, as Chabon brought to the world’s attention, a modern day Jewish golem/wish-fulfillment myth — not a Christ figure.

And the dog-eating jokes. Ugh…

Oh well. It was still enough of an achievement that I have to give it an A.

Essential Avengers vol. 1 Graded

Avengers #1. Grade: B. Obviously an important issue, but it laughably clear from the start how unbalanced this team is.
Avengers #2. Grade: A-. A more fair and balanced script – aided primarily by making Ant-Man into Giant-Man makes for a stronger second showing. The inking is sketchier, but still looks good to me.
Avengers #3. Grade: B+. Not much of a plot, but can you go wrong with Sub-Mariner vs. Thor vs. Hulk? A pure Kirby slugfest.
Avengers #4. Grade: A-. Captain America could not have asked for a better relaunch. Oh, and the Avengers are in it too.
Avengers #5. Grade: B+. Kirby makes the Lava Men look so good and everyone but the Wasp gets a moment to shine.
Avengers #6. Grade: B+. It’s always exciting to see a supervillain team-up, but these are purely second string villains.
Avengers #7. Grade: A. Finally, some villains worthy of Thor!
Avengers #8. Grade: A. Kang the Conqueror debuts. Nuff said!
Avengers #9. Grade: B. Wonder Man debuts and the reader has to keep from laughing at his costume. The decline of the Avengers has begun.
Avengers #10. Grade: B-. Why a new time-traveling villain already? Probably because Kang was too powerful for Capt. America to tackle.
Avengers #11. Grade: C-. Chic Stone’s inking looks horrible and the story isn’t much better; it just makes you wish Spider-Man was an Avenger.
Avengers #12. Grade: D+. The Mole Man has been reduced to a generic mad scientist, the sudden team-up with the Red Ghost is just weird, the science wackier than usual – and yet the plot about trusting in ants has an odd charm to it that saves the story from failure.
Avengers #13. Grade: C-. One of those stories about how quickly the establishment can turn on its heroes and law enforcement, that usually can’t handle supervillains, is inexplicably deadly towards the heroes. And Count Nefaria keeps the antidote conveniently sitting out in a spray bottle, of all things.
Avengers #14. Grade: D. It’s a shame Stan chose to place the Wasp in peril just to highlight Giant-Man this issue. The inking is minimal to the point of almost looking un-inked. The sci-fi elements here aren’t bad, though the whole doctor angle is just plain wacky.
Avengers #15. Grade: C-. The Cap vs. Zemo showdown is oddly unsatisfying, as rushed as it is. The stalemate between the Avengers and the Masters of Evil seems forced to foreshadow the need for a leaner, stealthier team in the next issue. The science is typically wacky – the intercontinental jet is traveling over New York so slow that the Masters only have to wait on nearby rooftops and attack it as it passes by.
Avengers #16. Grade: A-. The roster change is contrived (nobody tries to stop Hawkeye from shooting arrows at the butler?), much of the issue is just spinning its wheels, but – those last two pages, with Iron Man talking about what being an Avenger means to him – are genuinely moving.
Avengers #17. Grade: C+. The robot looks great, there is some dramatic build-up to the Minotaur’s appearance, and the near-constant ads for the Hulk’s comic kind of work as simultaneous stories. But do the Avengers really need a clue to look for the Hulk in the desert? And aren’t they essentially running away from the Mole Man at the end?
Avengers #18. Grade: B. One of Stan’s anti-communist propaganda pieces works by showing off the heroes individually, both in battle and in rare glimpses into their personal lives (who knew Wanda could sing, or wanted to act?).
Avengers #19. Grade: B-. I can tell I was supposed to like the Swordsman a lot more than I did. But, boy, what saves this issue is a real humdinger of a cliffhanger! Also, solid inking from Wally Wood begins this issue. Don Heck’s art never looked better!
Avengers #20. Grade: B-. Did Stan just make me like the Swordsman, or does he only look good next to the dorky-looking Mandarin?
Avengers #21. Grade: A. A great example of how a smart villain could easily sabotage a super-team’s public image. The Enchantress is so versatile that she is easily one of the best early Avengers foes.
Avengers #22. Grade: A-. Cap’s solution to their problems is too pat, but the fight with Power Man is great. It’s clear that this guy could have taken down the whole team if he’d wanted to and the fact that he, in the end, doesn’t want to, gives him more believable pathos than his predecessor, Wonder Man.
Avengers #23. Grade: B-. The new Avengers continue to be woefully out-classed, this time with Kang kicking their tails. A good set-up, and cliffhanger, before the next issue.
Avengers #24. Grade: A. The Avengers team up with Kang, of all people, in a clever, exciting tale of love and betrayal. Curiously, most of the action is off-panel and it gets annoying how quickly Quicksilver is getting sidelined in these stories so as not to show-up the other Avengers.