Monday, December 29, 2008

Journey into College, Vol. 2, No. 4

[From the February 28, 1992 issue of the Aurora Borealis student newspaper. Again, coloring is a new addition courtesy of my girlfriend, Megan.]

Monday, December 22, 2008

Journey into College, Vol. 2, No. 3

[From the Aurora Borealis, Feb. 11, 1992.]

Saturday, December 20, 2008

More for the Holidays!

[From the same issue of the Aurora Borealis, another Christmas-themed cartoon. Sorry about the big crease in the middle, but my surviving copy was badly wrinkled...]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Merry Christmas!

[Just in time for Christmas, here is a try-out cartoon I had to submit to the Aurora University student newspaper before they would let me continue "Journey into College" there. Like the previous comic strip, this was published in black and white, but has since been colored by my girlfriend, Megan.]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hideouts & Hoodlums Introduction

The new introduction to Hideouts & Hoodlums. For more, see http://groups.google.com/group/hideouts--hoodlums

HIDEOUTS & HOODLUMS is a fantasy roleplaying game, but not the type of fantasy where sword-wielding barbarians kill hordes of orcs while robed wizards shoot fireballs at dragons. This is the fantasy world of the superhero genre. The genre created by writers like Siegel, Robinson, and Kirby is surprisingly similar to the genre of Burroughs, Tolkein, and Howard. Both are escapist fantasies of, largely, male wish fulfillment.

As I grew up, reading comic books and then taking to DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, I often wished there was a way to combine my two passions. Many game systems have come and gone in the 26 years since I started gaming that attempted to do just that, but none of them greatly resembled D&D. In time, I realized that too many superhero games were obsessed with endless customization, while part of the charm of D&D was its very limitations – its limited archetypes with their preset paths from obscure novices to powerful uber-heroes. And, while I grew up with the comic books of the ‘70s, I also came to realize that an Old School superhero game should seek to capture the feel of Old School superhero comic books as well. In both cases, I have gone as close to the original sources as copyright laws allow.

Stripped to their essentials, the rules for a superhero game are relatively short compared to, as the introduction to the SWORDS &WIZARDRY rules puts it, “the multi-paged rule-libraries required to play most modern roleplaying games”. And yet this game allows one to play a two-fisted tough guy who grows into the world’s best fighter, a tuxedo-clad stage magician who grows into master of the mystic arts, or a superhero who goes from being able to knock down doors to knocking down mountains. Also, to quote the S&W introduction again, “The customizability of a small system is very powerful (it is always easier to add rules than to untangle them away)”. This will also be true of H&H, which will expand through supplements as the Golden Age of comics expanded to incorporate more ideas. New material will not come faster than a locomotive or a speeding bullet, but will hopefully be as exciting as reading about characters who are that fast.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Journey into College - Vol. 1, No. 1

[This is the first installment of "Journey into College, from the ECC Observer were it first debuted, Oct. 20, 1989 issue. As an added bonus, my girlfriend Megan has colorized it, since she can't stand black and white.]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Speed Racer, a Better Movie than Dark Knight

The Wachowski Brothers were on top of the world with the first Matrix movie. They had redefined the look and the mood of the action movie. There had been cool movies and there had been dark movies before, but here they had upped the ante by making dark look cooler than it ever had before. Unless you were really paying attention, you could get so lost in the coolness of the Matrix that you might miss that innocent people were being gunned down left and right. Fans screamed when the second and third Matrix movies actually jumped from building a "cool dark" world to moving on to an actual plot. Granted, the sequels were just not that good, but bad sequels have been hungrily gobbled up by the masses before (like Spider-Man 3). Their worse crime was dropping the ball. Their movies did not epitomize this new "cool dark" genre anymore because they were not cool enough.

Enter Christopher Nolan and the reboot of the Batman movie franchise. Nolan realized that, if he was going to draw in record breaking crowds, he would have to make Batman the new "cool dark." And he did. Despite that, he still made a good movie with Batman Begins (I have reviewed it previously and gave it an A-). Hype began early that The Dark Knight would be just as dark and cool. The hype would be confirmed -- The Dark Knight was indeed even darker and "cooler" than the previous movie.

Meanwhile, the Wachowski Brothers followed up V for Vendetta, a wonderful movie at least as good as Batman Begins, with Speed Racer, a loving tribute to a cult anime classic. It looked "way cool", but had shirked darkness for bright colors. The masses, schooled to like darkness, could not fathom it. How could a movie, they puzzled, be both bright and cool?

Respect for the original source material. The Dark Knight may have used the names of four characters that first appeared in comic books almost 70 years ago, but the characters were much different. Jim Gordon was not a working class cop, he was a distinguished commissioner. The Joker did not kill just to kill, but was motivated by greed. Harvey Dent was not a romantic rival for Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne/Batman is virtually unidentifiable as The Bat-Man who debuted in 1938. All the original material has been drained out of the characters and replaced with retconned material from much later comics.

In Speed Racer, the characters all look just the way they are supposed to (with the exception of Racer X, who perhaps understandably has traded in white for black). The cars all look like the manga/anime. Characters move across the screen without really moving, characteristic of the cheap animation of the original anime. Some of the cast -- particularly Christina Ricci, practically transforms herself into an anime character, with her eyes opened as wide as possible and her exaggerated movements. The relationship of the characters is all the same as in the manga/anime. The roles of some characters, like “Mom” Racer and Royalton (representing less-defined businessmen-characters who had attempted to buy Speed), are necessarily fleshed out and enhanced without contradicting anything.
Heroism. Hard to believe, but Speed Racer is more a movie about superheroes than The Dark Knight! Superheroes save people, or make the world better for others. Speed did both, saving the lives (or at least the livelihood, since few people are in danger of dying throughout the movie) of his family and making the world of auto racing free of corruption. In The Dark Knight, Batman only saved a few of the lives he set out to save, failing more often than he succeeded. Worse, he completely failed at making the world better. The mob had taken some hits, but so had the law, achieving a morbid balance and an unpleasant status quo. We were even denied the opportunity to see the Joker stopped, as his plot line was literally left dangling.

Surprising the Audience (SPOILERS!). Each movie has one big surprise that is reversed on itself by the end. The Dark Knight’s is the death of Gordon, who turns out not to be dead. Speed Racer’s is that Racer X is not really Speed’s brother, but then he really does turn out to be Speed’s brother. In Speed Racer, the big surprise is relevant because the theme of losing family is strong throughout the movie. In The Dark Knight, the big surprise is not relevant at all because it is was just another death in a movie littered with too much death. Gordon’s death is a cheat, where everyone else either dies or just survives.

ADDENDUM:

Fat to trim. I was discussing Dark Knight with Megan after she finally watched it and we agreed that the Dark Knight needed about 30 minutes of dead weight edited out of it to make a better movie. The whole "which boat is going to blow up the other one?" scene drags on horribly long. Maybe if a travesty like Saw VI ever comes out there will be a scene of hundreds of innocent victims being forced to mass murder each other, but there was really a zero-percent chance of this happening in a summer blockbuster, even one as grim as Dark Knight. And the Batcomputer subplot comes in way too late in the movie and seems to only be there to give Morgan Freeman more screen time. Speed Racer, meanwhile, had no fat to trim.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Alternate Opening to Module T1 The Village of Hommlet

[Written in 2000 (I think) when I ran Hommlet at GenCon.]
Firstly, know that there was no lack of adventure on the Wild Coast. Though the Common Year calendar marked this as but the 580th month of Planting, and the Wild Coast was not yet as wild as it would become, there was still plenty for aspiring adventurers to do. The great difficulty was in finding work for mercenary adventurers, as so many novices begin as. Herein the lawlessness of the region worked against them, and the lands to the north began to seem more palatable.
It was, in fact, a rumor that the Viscount of Verbobonc was paying a bounty on bandits that caused a small company of novice adventurers to form in the town of Safeton and make plans to reach the Viscounty on the far side of the Gnarly Wood. Little funding for the expedition could be arranged, so much of the provisions and hired porters came from the company’s own pockets. Investigation revealed that, while travel through the Gnarly Wood was routinely dangerous, there was still a trail leading through that was well-traveled by woodsmen, rangers, and less human travelers. A map showed that this trail would hit a major crossroad at a village called Hommlet.
The rumors of danger could not have been more true. Goblins harassed the company and picked off all the porters in the first two days through the Wood. A skirmish with orcs exhausted more than a quiver of arrows and some spare weapons. Night watches had to be especially alert.
By the company’s reckoning, there was no more than two miles left of the Wood to cover, and the forest was visibly thinner already. But night had fallen and it was too dark to cover those two miles safely, so camp was set up one last time. It was during the second watch that the company received a visitor…

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Alternate Opening to Module A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity - pt. 2

Old Plaza: The Old Plaza is an entire acre of ground paved in broken stone. The plaza is crowded with people. Hawkers are selling foodstuffs besides weapons. Lecherous sailors chase bawdy women out in the open. A business transaction is literally ended with a knife between the ribs within sight of you. Orc soldiers ignore it all as they cling to the shadows of awnings and overhangs. The plaza is ringed on all sides by shops, taverns, and bawdy houses. Two noteworthy exceptions are the large, raised platform where slave actions are held and the temple itself.

If the PCs loiter conspicuously in the plaza, then they will encounter an ogre. He is walking by, chewing on a whole goat, when he starts harassing the PCs. Hostilities can escalate as follows:
1) 1 ogre: AC 5; HD 4+1; hp 20; Dmg 2-7+2 (goat-club).
2) 10 pirates: AC 10; F 0; hp 4 each; Dmg 1-8 (scimitars).
3) 20 half-orc guards: AC 5 (scale & shield); F 1; hp 6 each; Dmg 2-8 (broadswords); led by 2 warriors: AC 4; F 2; hp 12 each; Dmg 1-8 (longswords); and a swordsman: AC 3; F 3; hp 18; Dmg 2-8 (bastard sword).
4) 2 thaumaturgists: AC 6; M-U 5; hp 11 each; Dmg 1-4 (dagger). Spells – Magic Missile, Shield, Sleep; Levitation, Stinking Cloud; Fireball.

Surveillance on the Temple: The 40’ high walls of the temple are as ravaged by time as the plaza floor. The stone is pitted and cracked, but has no holes big enough to climb through less than 20’ high – and those only a halfling could negotiate easily. On the west side of the temple are some shops – a stonecutter’s shed and a stable. On the east side of the temple is a shorter, newer building that seems to be an extension of the temple. If the temple ever had a grand entrance, it is not concealed by this east wing. The wing is fortified like a small keep. Steps lead up to a gatehouse on the north side. Orcs watch from the arrow slits and crenellations above, while a massive portcullis blocks the 20’ wide entrance below.

By day, a dozen half-orc veterans patrol the 20’ walls of the east wing. Patrols switch off in 0-7 hours. After one hour, Davilar the Slave Lord appears in the sky on a hippogriff and lands in area 14. By night, check each turn for wandering encounters. Stirges or ghouls may come down from the walls and attack.

Key to the Temple Level
1. Secret Door
Remove bar-spike trap.
2. Bricked Up Room
Hissing and skittering, like from a large lizard, can be heard from behind the east wall. There is a 1' hole in the wall, and a 1 in 6 chance to see the basilisk on the other side.
3. Collapsed Guard Tower
Pieces of a wooden staircase still hang from the walls of this tall shaft that ascends to the roof of the temple. There are 8 ghouls and 2 ghasts on a half-ruined upper level. There is a "nest" of 20 partial corpses up there with colorful but tattered clothes, banners, and painted baubles, plus the 6 gems. There is no potion. The 27 hp ghast says, "Lord Davilar will be pleased to know we have company," and then scampers over the roof to the east wing, alerting the orcs there.
4. Treacherous Floor
The fall is 20' (for 2d6 dmg) into a lower section of area 9. The wight from there will show up in 2 rounds.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

An Alternative Opening to A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity - pt. 1

[Written - gosh, when was it that I went to RockCon and ran this? 2002? It is an expanded introduction to the classic tournament module and should be useful for anyone else wishing to run it.]

Background: In recent years, organized bands of pirates and slavers have raised the coastal towns on the Sea of Gearnat. Across the Wild Coast, Hardby, and even distant Onnwal they have descended quickly and ruthlessly on civilization, carrying off prisoners of all social classes. For too long, no opposition could be organized against them save for scattered naval confrontations. Land fortifications were too slow in coming, so bribery became the accepted method of fending off these sea wolves.

Recently, the attacks of the slavers have become more frequent and vicious. Entire villages are burned and towns have seen their walls wrecked down. Women, children, and whole families are disappearing.
Bribes are accepted, but agreements are ignored.

You were summoned south from the free town of Safeton to the troubled town of Fax. Its businesses were closed and its citizens hid behind walls that afforded no protection. Their only hope seemed to be Sir Laren Ganden, defender of Fax, who had acquired a weapon against the slavers no one else seemed to have – information. From escaped slaves and captured slavers he confirmed that the despoiled city of Highport was the base for the slavers' fleet. Launching a fleet capable of defeating the slavers at their home port was still months of diplomatic wrangling away, but Sir Ganden reasoned that a small team
of heroes experienced in stealth could enter Highport, locate the slave lords, and dispatch them. At the very least, the attempt would throw the port into chaos, ensuring victory in a later large-scale attempt.

Already driven to vengeful thoughts by personal losses to the slavers and persuaded by Sir Ganden’s arguments, you traveled by land to the border of the Pomarj – that wasted peninsula overrun with goblins, orcs, and worse monsters. The City of Highport once held good men in its halls, but Highport had been looted and burned until its splendor was no more. Now human brigands and pirates walked the streets beside green-furred gnolls and mottled-flesh ogres. Kobolds, goblins, and orcs slunk through the shadows. All seemed grim and bleak, yet through perseverance you found numerous leads. It was clear that the slavers operated out of an old temple. You learned of an old man named Erebrid who was said to have been a cleric of the temple in the old days before the slavers took it. You learned of an orc named Grud who worked in the stables adjoining the temple, a gambling orc who could be easily bribed. You learned of an orc named Bug who was a disgruntled employee of the stonecutter whose shop also adjoined the temple. Your last lead was Derjetto Sklartez, said to be the slavers’ best customer.

Prompt: Do you want to talk to one of those four, watch the temple grounds for awhile, or march right in?

1) Erebrid. Erebrid is an old man who refuses to leave his hut. “You must forgive me,” he says, “for my wife is blind and needs me here, you see. Ah, the temple! Yes, I remember it as if it was yesterday. The rangers of the Suss Forest built it for our patroness, Ehlonna, goddess of wildlands and I was one of its lay keepers. It had the most beautiful gardens…until the orcs came. They killed our priests, destroyed our icons, and claimed the temple as their own! Many a day has passed since when I’ve wished I were a young fighter. I would use the secret entrance…”

Erebrid will describe the secret door, but will not lead them to it.

2) Grud. Grud can be found at the Dead Dragon Gambling Den. Grud’s story: “Who told you I work at those stables? Well, it’s true enough. I can come and go as I please, even into the temple so long as I stay on the west side. If you’re, eh, interested in seeing the inside of the temple, I could let you in for, say, 50 gold – it’s worth it for the risk I’m taking – but I’ll need it by Freeday evening.”

3)Bug. Bug can be found at the Bloody Entrails Tavern. “Oh, woe is me that I must go back there!” he laments. “You can’t imagine what it’s like. Ghostly things haunt that temple! They scratch at our doors and attack us if we’re ever alone. I’d do anything for a vial of holy water to protect myself with!”

4) Derjetto Sklartez. Derjetto can be found at the Inn of the Sinful Sailor. His companions, Klaria the Anti-Hero and Byronkainen the Magician, stand behind his chair. “I understand you’re interested in slaves,” Derjetto says. “You have come to the right city, my friends, for the slave market is exceptional here in Highport – the slave women are particularly exceptional. You could attend the slave actions in the Old Plaza, but the best slaves are reserved for private showings in the plaza’s temple. You would need a reference to get in. I happen to make an exceptional reference – for a fee of, let’s say, 100 gold pieces.”

Friday, November 28, 2008

X-Men: the Last Stand Reviewed

[Includes spoilers]
After being warned away from it and considering it a low priority for some time, I finally watched X-Men: the Last Stand. I have not been a huge fan of any of the X-Men movies, thinking them to be okay action movies and superhero movies, but not great on either scale. This one starts surprisingly promising, with a prolog featuring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan together. I have said before that I would have happily watched a whole movie with just these two actors sitting together and talking and was glad to at least get one good scene of this out of the movie.

Hugh Jackman is as delightful as ever as Wolverine and it is mainly to Jackman’s and McKellan’s credit that they are both able to take visually changing characters and play them with such absolute sincerity that you have no choice but to believe Jackman is going to “pop claws” when he twitches his wrists or that McKellan can wear a helmet and cape and gesture a lot and not look silly doing it.

Poor Halle Berry is still given so little to work with that anyone could have played the part of Storm. At least her role isn’t laughably bad anymore like in the first film.

Patrick Stewart is given the difficult task of having to bite it early in the film, but is that really a spoiler? Prof. X is always being killed off in the comics. It’s vital to the X-Men that Prof. X die so the youngsters can all move out from his shadow and come into their own adulthoods. Yet, writers are constantly finding a need for Prof. X in their storylines and bringing him back. But this time, Prof. X has been killed off for another reason. His death at Phoenix’s hands is karmic payback for tampering with her mind all those years ago, which I suppose is why he looks disturbingly okay with being disintegrated when his time comes.

Was Famke Janssen really ever a model? I still marvel over how unattractive this woman is and how unappealing her interpretation of Jean Grey is. Is she supposed to seem menacing when she’s Phoenix? Because she looks like she’s just sleepwalking.

Anna Paquin must have been so disappointed when she read the scripts for X2 and Last Stand, after how large her role was in the first film. Rogue just stands around a lot and…pines after Iceman like a lovesick puppy? Huh?

I like Kelsey Grammer’s rich voice as much as the next guy, but, c’mon, Grammer is over 50 years old. Even heavy make-up can’t conceal that. I just can’t buy him leaping and jumping around like a monkey. He’d slip a disc!

And speaking of actors getting the shaft in this movie, how about poor James Marsden! Sure, he was a lackluster Cyclops, but Cyclops was always a lackluster character anyway. That’s no excuse to kill him! And what does his death accomplish for the story? One more gravestone at the end? No, it simply makes it less awkward for Wolverine to say “I love you” before killing Phoenix. If Cyclops was still alive, Wolverine would have to walk up to him sheepishly and say, “I meant, like a friend.”

Should I go on? There’s really too many characters to mention – too many characters, period. This movie is way too busy and trying to tell too many stories without finishing any of them. I generously give the movie a B- because it is clearly not aiming higher than what it manages to be, an excuse for putting as many X-Men-related characters on the big screen as possible. Hmm…okay, and Magneto and Pyro throwing flaming cars at the X-Men was really cool too…

Friday, November 21, 2008

Harby Encounter Area/Business Tables

[Written in 1990, while transitioning from the Fate of Istus campaign to the City of Greyhawk campaign. We never did visit Hardby…]

HARDBY, despotrix on the Woolly Bay
Population: 10,000 Major Races: Human, Dwarves
Align: LN(E) Archetype: A small Russian city (communist)
Founded: 445 CY Leader: Lord Kiltakken Caerwich
Northwest Quarter
01. The Weary Workhorse Tavern
02. Chapel to Hextor
03. Coppersmith’s Shoppe
04. Glassblower’s Shoppe
05. Hardbian Police Watch Station
06. Cobblepot Square (tinkers’ market)
07. The Abor-Alz Inn
08. The Herbal Cleric Apothecary
09. Sallivar’s Tavern (thieves’ guild meeting hall)
10. The Hundred Elven Maidens Bawdy House
11. Shrine to Zilchus
12. Merchants’ Guildhall
13. Traders’ Guildhall
14. Caerwich Magic Institute of Hardby
15. The Sailing Cog Tavern
16. Hardbian Secret Police Headquarters
17. Mercenaries and Adventurers’ Guildhall
18. The Golden Gryphon Feasthall
19. Chapel of Norebo
20. The Bayside Theatre
21. Civic Tombs
22. Sign of the Red Scarf Weaving and Dying Shoppe
23. Sardu’s Warehouse
24. The Happy Beggar Hostel
25. The Crossed Cutlasses Tavern
Southwest Quarter
26. The Sailing Man’s Clothiery
27. Safeton Imports (clothes, pottery)
28. The Spinning Dwarf Gambling Hall
29. The Wooly Street Pawnshop
30. Myrick’s Locksmithy
31. Sign of the Skullcap Leatherworker and Hatter
32. The Greyhawk Inn
33. The Abor-Alz Expedition Supple Store
34. Sign of the Chair and Table Carpenters
35. The Port in the Storm Boardinghouse
36. Sign of the Buxom Wench Hostelry and Bawdy House
37. The Cherry Pie Bakery
38. The Sea Dragon Inn
39. Sign of the Weaponrack (weaponsmithy)
40. Augilin’s Warehouse
41. The Mermaid Alehouse
42. Sardu’s Shipping and Hauling
43. Augilin’s Shipping and Hauling
44. The Sailor’s Knot Ropes & Rigging Shoppe
45. The Wharf Rate Alehouse
46. The Bloody Stump Butchery
47. Tilcen’s Bootmaking Shoppe
48. Argo’s Boat Repair Service
49. The Lost Soul Boarding House
50. Chapel to Xerbo
Southeast Quarter
51. The Blind Man’s Bawdy House
52. The Goodwife’s Bakehouse
53. Sign of Chain Links Armory
54. Civic Workhouse
55. Laborers’ Guildhall
56. Tavernkeepers’ Guildhall
57. Scribes’ Guildhall
58. Hardbian Police Watch Station
59. Metalsmiths’ Guildhall
60. Weavers’ and Tailors’ Guildhall
61. The Red Beetle Tavern (assassins’ front)
62. The Dancing Maidens Hostel
63. The Open Door Boardinghouse
64. The Red Meat Butchery
65. The Snapping Turtle Brewery and Eatery
66. Shrine to Pelor
67. Church to Rao
68. Church to Delleb
69. Harmony Park
70. The Church Street Theatre
71. Alistor’s Silversmithy
72. Leatherworker’s Shoppe
73. Sign of Six Vials Alchemist & Apothecary
74. Hardbian Police Watch Station
75. Royal Blacksmithy
Northeast Quarter [never done]

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Rookroost Encounter Area/Business Tables

[Written back in 1989-1990, when I was running my Fate of Istus campaign.]
ROOKROOST, largest city of the Bandit Kingdoms (N3-26)
Population: 17,300 Major Races: Humans, Orcs, Hobgoblins
Align: CN(E) Archetype: Fragmented Poland (c. 1200 AD)
Founded: 325 CY Leader: Lord Pernevi (6th level f, 12th level t)
THE PEAK
01. The Lord’s Palace
02. Raven Square
03. Ereaden’s Tower (royal apothecary)
04. Elara’s Villa (guildmistress of thieves)
05. Police Guardhouse
06. The White Elf Inn
07. Peak Gate
08. Temple to Zilchus
09. Temple to Atroa
10. Chapel to Celestian
11. Mechants’ Guildhall
12. Wizards’ Guildhall
13. The Palace Guard Inn
14. Royal Guardhouse
15. Ambassador Hall
16. Mercenaries’ Guildhall
17. The Hunters’ Club
18. The Fortune’s Fool Gambling House
19. Chapel to Hextor
20. Shrine to Fharlanghn
21. The Prince’s Club
22. The Aerie Opera House
23. Royal Tomb
24. Civic Courthouse
25. The Donjon (prison)
THE CITY
01. Benedict’s Trading Office (thieves’ guild)
02. Northern Police Barracks
03. The Drunken Dragon Tavern
04. Chapel to Kurell
05. Teamsters’ Guildhall
06. The Wayfarer Tavern
07. The Ravenshead Inn
08. Triumphary Gate
09. Metalsmiths’ Guildhall
10. Greystaff’s Sale of Arms
11. Random’s Trading Warehouse
12. Greyhaven Armorers
13. The Northaven Tavern
14. Aliss Westwind’s Apothecary
15. Funary Gate
16. Cheap Street Market
17. Shrine to Erythnul
18. Eastern Police Barracks
19. Jallar Selivant’s Mansion (wizards’ guildmaster)
20. Tax Office (small fortress)
21. The Dryad’s Cat Alehouse
22. Chapel of St. Cuthbert
23. The Crowsbill Holstelry
24. The Sapphire Inn (for dwarves)
25. The Green Dragon Hostelry (and Bawdy House)
26. The Playhouse Theatre
27. Chapel to Pelor
28. Prince College
29. The Rooster’s Bookshop
30. The Purple Ogre Hostelry
31. Moneychangers’ Guildhall
32. Fochulcan College
33. The Blind Man’s Alehouse
34. Civic Arena (seats 3,000)
35. Southern Police Barracks
36. Carpenters’ Guildhall
37. Tailors’ Guildhall
38. Red Dragon Inn
39. City Workhouse
40. Western Police Barracks
41. The Conjurer’s Pit Tavern (for specialist magic-users)
42. Civic Warehouse
43. Shrine to Pholtus
44. The Dirk and the Moon (bawdy house)
45. Shrine to Trithereon
46. Auction House
47. Slaughterhouse
48. The Goldfinch (bawdy house)
49. Shrine to Olidammara
50. Hubbard’s Gambling House
51. Civic Bathhouse
52. Riftcanyon Brewery
53. Curossa’s Boarding House (for halflings)
54. Kulhoch’s Pawnshop (thief fence)
55. Assassins’ Guildhall
56. Dirk’s Object Reading (3rd level psionicist)
57. Civic Depot
58. Darda Diggerdown, gnomish gemcutter
59. The Broom and Barrel Feasthall
60. Shrine and Gambling House to Norebo
61. The Poorhouse Bakery
62. The Fruit Vendor (foodshop)
63. Reftas’ Slaughterhouse
64. The Shield Shoppe
65. The Leather Hauberk, leatherworkers
66. Cobbler’s Shoppe
67. Fabrics and Clothier
68. Paint and Canvas Shoppe
69. Ibur’s Statuettes and Jewelry
70. The Quaildrink Brewery
71. Serfek’s Bakery
72. The Scale and Chain Armory
73. The Axe and Dagger Weaponer
74. The Redhand Brewery
75. The Saddle Shoppe (leatherworker)
76. The Wandering Wyvern Inn
77. Sing of the Grey Ox Tavern
78. The Wizard’s Tailor (clothes and staves)
79. Sing of the Mounted Knight Stables
80. Chapel to Obad-Hai
81. The Boarshead Brewery
82. The Thousandheads Trading Coster (walled compound)
83. The Serpentine Street Slaughterhouse
84. The Shank Street Tannery
85. The Great Northern Way Stables
86. The Dead Man’s Carter Shoppe
87. The Clothier’s Trading Post
88. Dwarven Ores & Gemstones
89. The Sign of the Woodsman (boardinghouse for elves)
90. Swordman’s Training Hall
91. The Commoner’s Stables
92. The Incantation Club (inn for invokers only)
93. The Good Gnome’s Outfitter (small-sized weapons and armor)
94. Sign of the Blue Mule Alehouse
95. Sign of Tanned Hide, Leather Good’s Shoppe
96. Stoink Guild Warehouse
97. Northern Way Bakehouse
98. The Naughty Nymph Bawdy House
99. The Rookroost Militia Armory
00. Signpainter’s Shoppe

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Overview of Blackmoor - Greyhawk Version

[Written in 2006 for a "Blackmoor in Greyhawk" campaign]
Tucked away in a little corner of the Flanaess, between the Land of Black Ice to the north, the Icy Sea to the west, the Cold Marshes to the south, and the Burneal Forest to the west, is the land of Blackmoor. Although isolated from most of the doings of the Flanaess, Blackmoor is an active place with its own dramatic history.

Though hilly, even mountainous, to the southeast and west, half of Blackmoor is below sea level. Peat, or "sinking land," is the most common soil. The forests are half-coniferous and half-deciduous. The most prominent geographic features are Lake Blackmoor, which flows into the Icy Sea; the Island of Coot in Lake Blackmoor; the
sylvan Redwood Forest to the east, between the City of Maus and the Dragon Hills; "Lake" Gloomen, an island-filled swamp to the southwest; and the Skandaharian Strait that feeds Lake Blackmoor with run-off from the Black Ice.

The indigenous humans of Blackmoor were the caramel-skinned Flanae-Skandaharians (the Skandaharians being a fierce Viking people that live in the Land of the Black Ice). In the ancient past, Baklunish and Oerdian immigrants came to the region. The Baklunish were small in number, remnants flung from their fallen empire to the far west. They brought some of their exotic culture to Blackmoor, but remained
largely aloof from the indigenous people. Some half-Baklunish people remain in Blackmoor today. The Oerdians, an expansionist people, brought Blackmoor a sense of connection with the rest of the Flanaess. This last migration was 500 years ago, when Blackmoor was still a little kingdom.

Although he lived almost 500 years ago, everyone in Blackmoor knows the name of Uther, last king of Blackmoor. Uther was fascinated with Oerdian tales of the "great kingdom" of Ferrond to the south. He journeyed there, through the orc-infested Cold Marshes and the nomad lands beyond and finally pledged his fealty to the Ferrondian
King. Uther became Marquis to the March of Blackmoor, farthest province of Ferrond.

Over time, Ferrond grew unstable and broke apart. Contact with Ferrond, or Furyondy as it would become, grew faint. And Blackmoor became busy with new matters outside its borders. To the far west, the Witch-Queen Iggwilv was trying to whip the Tiger Nomads into an army. Some nomads fled north through the Burneal Forest and came
into conflict with the forest's goblins and kobolds. The goblins in particular were pushed east and spilled into Blackmoor. Worse, when the nomads emerged from the north side of the forest, they settled down and became a rival and threat to Blackmoor. Their leaders were the Wolf Dukes. The then-Marquis of Blackmoor answered their threat by changing his own title to Arch-Duke, which his descendents have
kept since. Meanwhile, the goblins were harried north, where they were absorbed into the Barony of Coot, where evil men were gathering. All there were under the spell of a monstrous being called the Egg of Coot. Intent on conquest, the Coot Invasion of
the southern baronies began 400 years ago and took the combined effort of man and the fairy races, who had previously remained neutral in Blackmoor's affairs, to repel.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Human Torch Story from Marvel Mystery Comics #2 Reviewed

Marvel Mystery Comics #2
“The Human Torch.” Grade: D.
This starts out real nice, with a collage splash page of art from the last issue with five diary entries from the Torch's creator interspersed. Then the story starts in earnest with more busy pages averaging 10 panels per page. The Torch is now acting just like an ordinary human, wearing a suit and hanging out at a race track to watch the races. We also learn for the first time that Prof. Horton was killed when the Torch left him at the end of last issue, as the Torch burned through the roof and caused it to collapse on top of him. Showing little regret (he “didn't approve” of Horton), the Torch jumps right into the case of a bizarre racing racket where, instead of subtly sabotaging the other cars in a race, someone is causing the other cars to burst into flames and kill the drivers. Since this has been going on for awhile, it's unclear how this hasn't caused all races to be canceled until the killers are found. It's also unclear how everyone but the Torch could be so stupid as to not see the suspiciousness of a low flying plane passing over each car before it bursts into flame.
As if this would be a hard mystery to solve, the Torch is arrested for Horton's murder and thrown in jail so the Torch can pick up a clue from an inmate before breaking back out again. Back at the tracks (they're ALREADY racing again!), the Torch sees the same plane and attacks it, forcing it to land. He catches the pilot, but then the plane explodes and the pilot claims the Torch can't do anything to him because the evidence was just destroyed. At this point most superheroes would have scared a confession out of this punk or simply handed him over to the police, but the Torch naively lets him go and has to wait for the next clues to fall in his lap! And they do too, because the bad guys, led by Blackie, send a woman to lure the Torch into a trap involving a false door and a vat of water on the other side for him to fall into. And then they dump him into a boiling lime pit. But, of course, the Torch is virtually indestructible and just walks out later.
The next day, there's a race AGAIN! The Torch attacks the men who had attacked him at the track, but he accidentally sets the stands on fire and has to let them escape to put out the flames. Here the Torch demonstrates his control of flame – but unlike the latter Johnny Storm who just thinks about controlling flame and it happens, this Torch has to let out a “long, weird yell” ala Tarzan and the flames obey him. Then the Torch chases the crooks into ANOTHER deathtrap, this time involving water hoses and molten steel. He gets out of this even faster than the lime trap and attacks Blackie's men, but they're protected by asbestos suits and escape him because their car can make a smokescreen. The inmate from the jail shows up, revealing that he's an undercover cop (he'll also become the Torch's first reoccurring supporting cast member) and helps the Torch chase Blackie to an airport. Blackie's men are on a plane that's taking off, but the Torch grounds the plane and burns the pilot's jaw with a flaming punch. But Blackie isn't with his gang, he's trying to escape by car. So the Torch sets the car on fire and offers to get Blackie out if he signs a confession. Blackie, terrified, agrees, having forgot he was still wearing his asbestos suit.
The undercover cop returns and we learn his name is Johnson. Once the police have the confession, the Torch vanishes, leaving only flaming footprints behind (which is supposed to be like a calling card for him, as he had left them earlier at the lime pit too).
So, yeah, this review was basically one long vent.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Flushed Away Reviewed

I was not ready for Flushed Away when it came out, turned off by what looked like over-hype (the usual movie tie-in merchandise I was used to, but ads played over the intercom in Kohl’s?). I also dislike rodents intensely and tire of the cliché of mice as heroes. After Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, though, I was primed for more stop-motion clay animation (this time heavily assisted by computer animation) and watching Pixar’s Ratatouille opened me up to the possibility of rodent heroes again. Which was good, because this movie has lots and lots of rats in it. A whole city’s worth.

That the rats talk and act like typical English humans was no surprise. Personification is an old staple of animation and has been a useful tool for telling fables for even longer. More surprisingly, when our rodent hero is literally flushed out of his expository scenes into the world of sewer rats, almost all of the rats he encounters are busy doing something instead of just standing around waiting to be encountered. Indeed, once the story moves to the rat city, we find the rats are so busy that there is a story already in progress! This in medias res second beginning – Rita’s flight and capture from rats after a ruby in her possession -- annoyed me at first, until I realized that it is the richness of the backstory of the secondary characters that makes it feel, initially, as if we have missed some important plot points. And everyone knows each other. On one level, it’s just a running gag when characters you don’t think would know each other do, but on another level it speaks of the dynamic environment all these characters hail from. They know each other because they all had rich lives before the story ever started.

The story is a flaky confection that doesn’t bear up to much scrutiny, but in a zany comedy like this it hardly matters. The real test is how much you care about the characters and here the movie succeeds. Roddy and Rita’s relationship builds organically without feeling forced (compare to the forced mammoth love of Ice Age 2). The villains each have at least one whimsical foible and are sympathetic to varying degrees. The henchrats Spike and Whitey, are charming and hilarious, easily getting the funniest lines of the movie (“You’ve got soft hands,” “They may be soft, but they’re lethal weapons!” and “Danger is my middle name!” “I thought it was Leslie.”) Even the boat, the Jammy Dodger, turns out to be a character and I was surprised to be moved by its loss. Rita’s absurdly dysfunctional family (right down to their precarious house boat), in a live action movie, would be character actor heaven, but you do hope that things turn out alright for them and, indeed, all of the rats as disaster threatens them at the end.

There are hidden gems and inside jokes enough to make multiple viewings necessary. The movie sold me right away with the inside joke about Roddy holding up a Wolverine costume (since he’s voiced by Hugh Jackman, Wolverine in the X-Men films). The Finding Nemo running gag is a lot of fun. The surfer, the one person in the crowd scene disappointed by the saving of the city, is a hilarious sight gag. And there is the top-rate voiceover work to go back and listen to. Sir Ian McKellen is wonderfully, manically expressive as the mad master villain, The Toad. You can see in the bonus features how he had to contort himself to stretch so much out of his voice.

I give the movie an A. If 2006 had not been an unusually good year for movies, this would have ranked higher, but as it is it surely is my fourth favorite movie from that year.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ongoing Adventures of Elongated Man

[So, I've been playing in this campaign called "Animated JLU" over on playbyweb.com for awhile, but that site has this frustrating feature where old threads are deleted after awhile and all the stuff I've written while playing DC Comic's Elongated Man is disappearing. So, while this posts, extracted from all the posts around them, are not going to make any sense to the average visitor, I still feel the need to see some of them permanently archived somehow. Hence...]

Elongated Man did not particularly care for hanging out on the orbital satellite, but had heard Flash say they were organizing a bridge party and dropped everything to come play. Ralph was Old School and preferred bridge to poker. Unfortunately, Flash had just been joking and Ralph had found himself in orbit with little to do until the announcement. Not being as familiar with the layout of the satellite, Ralph had found everyone else just as Solovar's transmission from Gorilla City ended.

"Hey, wait for me!" Ralph said as the others all headed for the hangar bay. "When did Mr. Terrific become leader around here?" he asked quietly to Gypsy en route.

Elongated Man waited, because it seemed Flash was team leader here and would answer Green Lantern's question. Ralph also glanced at the equipment in their jet, wondering if any of it could be used to detect their opponents, like radar to pick up flying foes, or detectors that could scan for radiation from energy-emitting foes, etc.

Elongated Man saw the flame jet out the window and realized he didn't need to scan for energy-emitting foes. "Hey, wait for me!" Ralph cried as he stretched after the Flash.

Elongated Man barely recognized the newbie Green Lantern, but he was handling his power ring like a pro already. Ralph had yet to see how well this "Kyle" held up in combat, compared to John Stewart, so he only gave Kyle a half-smile as he stood in the energy bubble.

Elongated Man stretched towards Clayface. "Never doubted you, Flash!" Ralph cheered him on. As he approached Clayface, Ralph caused his own two arms to expand into flail-like appendages. "Can you get anymore disgusting, Clayface?" he asked as Ralph attempted to entangle his own arms with Clayface's tentacles.

Naturally, Elongated Man waited until Green Lantern released him from the energy bubble before charging Clayface (and, actually, will probably stand back and wait if he sees Superboy is already melting the weakest foe the weaker heroes could have dealt with). :(

"Wow...hope Clayface can reform from that!" Elongated Man cried out with alarm as his foe was inadvertently smashed to pieces. He could see the two greater threats were still very real.

"I'm on the robot with G.L.!" Ralph called out. With great difficulty, he stretched himself out and bent around himself over and over until he looked like a big ball made of rubber bands. Then he rolled himself towards the giant robot, trying to get under one of its feet and make it trip on him (provided he wasn't just squashed flat).

"I guess that was just for warming up," Elongated Man said. "Do we want to go in any further sneaky-like or just rush the next set of bad guys?"

"If you're offering Gypsy and me another bubble ride, you're on," Elongated Man replied. Was he actually going to beat a Flash to a villain? He hadn't done that in ages.

When Elongated Man saw the robots, he asked Green Lantern, "Can you get me up to one of those robots before you take out the others? I want to see if I can stretch thin enough to slip inside it."

Elongated Man slipped into the robot's mouth, only to find he was staring into the muzzle of a giant flame thrower! The robot was being jostled outside by one of his friends (and has no idea which one), so he had to act fast. With perhaps seconds at best before the robot used its flame thrower, Ralph looked to see if there was anyway he could sabotage the flame thrower (maybe remove some screws by shaping his hand into a wrench) so it would aim at the inside of the mouth and slag the robot's chin without harming anyone outside the robot.

THEN, Ralph had to make sure he was outside of the robot, whether he had succeeded or not, before the flame thrower went off!

((I think that was my longest delay in posting yet. Sorry!))

Elongated Man had helped with one of the robots, but found himself literally flattened as another one came down right on top of him. The disabled robot did not move, making it even harder for Ralph to free himself. "Sorry, guys! Need a hand here when someone's free!" he called out, embarrassed to be stuck under a robot in just their second battle.

"Thanks Superboy," Elongated Man said. Superboy had lifted the robot off him so fast, Ralph didn't even see him do it. He would have loved to high-five Flash, but was still a little embarrassed and missed the opportunity.

"Hmm...the gorillas seem awful quiet," Ralph said, his nose starting to wiggle as he contemplated their radio silence. "Can anyone find us what passes for City Hall around here? That seems the best place to go to find them."

"Glad you could join us, Zatanna," Elongated Man said belatedly. "You could transport us all to City Hall even faster than Green Lantern could..."

Elongated Man found himself being scooped up in one of Superboy's arms, across from Gypsy and Zatanna perched precariously on the other.

"That's the thing about being in the Justice League," he joked. "You never know what you're going to be using for transportation."

As they reached altitude, Ralph stretched out an arm and pointed. "That looks like it would be the Town Square!"

"Grodd might be controlling them all," Elongated Man suggested after Gypsy's comments got him thinking. "Superboy, can you see or hear Grodd with your super-senses? We need to take him down as quickly as we can."

Elongated Man chose his target. "Dibs on Weather Wizard!" he said so at least Gypsy, Zatanna, and Superboy would hear. Then he began to stretch and wrap himself into a ball. "Superboy!" he hollered from inside himself. "Before you take Giganta, pitch me like a fastball at Weather Wizard!"

In Superboy's haste, he seemed to have forgotten what Elongated Man has asked of him. Dropped rather than thrown, Ralph had no choice but to bounce around like a giant beach ball, hoping to "steer" his bounces so that he could ricochet off of Weather Wizard's noggin from behind.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Greyhawk Comic Book Script

[Possibly from as late as 2005, this was a project I worked on when I was going to show Kenzer & Co. how a Greyhawk-related comic book should really look. I aborted this script when I proposed it to them and was told that they were purposely using as little Greyhawk intellectual property as possible. Heavily, heavily modified, this story grew into the "Castle Greyhawk" novella.]

ISSUE 1
PAGE 1
Panel A (Splash Page)
The scene is a panoramic view of the Slum Quarter of the City of Greyhawk (feel free to use the poster map of the City of Greyhawk boxed set as a reference). The buildings are almost all one-story tall, made of wood and stucco, with thatched roofs. Blocks are arranged in narrow triangular shapes, with skinny yards between homes. The streets are narrow and muddy.
The time is dusk. The glow of fires can be seen from the cracks of shuttered windows. Wispy trails of smoke rise from roof holes (and only a few true chimneys). Light purple clouds can be seen in the dark blue, starry sky. The shadowy shapes of what are probably pigeons and bats can be seen flying overhead, plus one silhouette of a pseudodragon (tiny dragon) in their midst.
Caption: Night spreads its dark cloak over the City of Greyhawk. Many of its people interrupt the dull tedium of their daily labor with blissful sleep. Some, the less disciplined, seek entertainments not available by daylight. Others, the more adventurous, search for truths that day sheds no light on...
A Single Word Balloon Rising Out from the City: Tenser is wrong.
PAGE 2
Panel A
Full-width, one-third page tall, medium-range, exterior shot, slightly angled upward.
The wooden sign hanging overhead shows a tankard over the words "Left Hand Inn." The ground floor of the inn is stone, with wooden crossbeams over stucco on the upper levels (only part of the second floor may be visible in this panel, though). The window is shuttered, but brightly outlined by the hearth-fire within. The front door stands halfway open. There is a currently unused hitching post and trough visible out front in the street.
Two men are standing between the trough and the window. They are both large, tan-skinned men with black hair and beards, similar enough in appearance that they could be brothers (and are). Both men wear long, long-sleeve tunics with yellow and green checkered pattern, that come down below their belts. They wear brown hose on their legs, and darker brown hooded cloaks. Their dress only differs in ornamentation -- different cut to their gauntlets and boots, clasps on their cloaks, or belt buckles (see module WGA, Rary the Traitor, for picture reference of Robilar).
Teric: This isn't a good idea.
Robilar: No, I agree with him. If we are to explore this ruined castle, it will help to learn all of its known lore.
Panel B
Full-width, one-third page tall, medium-range, interior shot, from the side.
The common room of the Left Hand Inn has about eight patrons visible as Robilar and Terik walk cautiously into the room. None of the patrons at first seem more exotic than a drabbly dressed dwarf. All of the patrons are ugly people, the sort Leonardo da Vinci would have enjoyed sketching, with oversized ears, warty noses, scars, and the like. But they are also a quiet, laid back bunch. Half of them are just sitting and drinking. Two are holding darts, caught in mid-game. One is getting up from his table just as another one came to sit down next to him.
The wooden tables are slightly warped and stained. The patrons sit on benches or stools, but no chairs. The whole room is wood except for a stone hearth. There is a small fire in the hearth, and candles dripping wax from a low-hanging, cheap-looking chandelier to light the room. The dim light casts many shadows on the patrons. There are thin pillars in the room, which cast shadows too.
Robilar: I see him.
Panel C
Just over a half-page width, one-third page tall, medium-range, interior shot, looking between Robilar and Teric.
The two heroes are standing in front of a seated man, towards the back of the common room. He has hair like seaweed, large round ears, one baggy, squinty eye and one missing eye (no patch, just squinted shut), a round nub of a nose, drooping jowls, and bit of a hunchback, and a peg leg. He wears a black surcoat. Where the surcoat is open, a red and white checkered shirt can be seen beneath, stretched tight over his paunch (see module WGA4, Vecna Lives!, for picture reference of Turim Varnostak).
Robilar: You are Turim Varnostak?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Marvel Comics #1 Reviewed

This is it – the primordial Marvel Comics, in 1939 when the company was known as Timely. Because Marvel Comics #1 is such a mixed bag, I'm going to grant each feature a separate grade instead of one for the whole issue.

Marvel Comics #1
“The Human Torch.” Grade: C.
Very busy page layouts, with up to 12 panels on 2 different pages! Carl Burgos' artwork is crude and sketchy. The “science” behind a flaming android is just ridiculous. He's pretty much unstoppable, unless you have water or a chemical lab handy. The most character depth we get is the since-quoted line of angst, “Why must everything I touch turn to flame?” and the rebellious vow, “I'll be free, and no one will ever use me for selfish gain – or crime!” Sardo the Racketeer is a pretty sad nemesis with an overly convoluted scheme for sneaking the Torch into warehouses and making him inadvertently burn them down. I can't see that having worked more than once. It is interesting how the Torch gets out of punishment in court for having murdered people, since he's an android and technically his creator's property.
“The Angel.” Grade: C+.
This one has 12-panel pages 4 times! Paul Gustavson's artwork is clearer than Burgos' and has heavier inking to give it a noirish look, but it is hard to follow the action from the art alone. The story is a simple Angel-kills-mobsters-one-by-one story until a mystery woman enters the story, leaving cryptic notes for the Angel and rescuing him during the obligatory captured-by-the-bad-guys scene. When she turns out to be working for the main bad guy (the mystery of who he is was spoiled back on page 2), it completes the collection of cliches – though it's not so bad a collection of cliches.
“The Sub-Mariner.” Grade: A-.
Compared to the last two pages, Bill Everett's art looks expansive, with only 1 page of 7 panels and most averaging 6 panels. The inking is gorgeous in the on-land scenes, though with excessive lines in the underwater scenes. There is a slowly mounting sense of menace to the early pages that gets their payoff when Namor really does turn out to be a menace. Then he surprisingly turns out to be a Mommy's boy, raised for revenge by his mother for how she was impregnated by an American (and giving us Namor's origin story; we learn that Namor was born in either 1920 or possibly 1921). That he is naïve enough to not know he's killing surface-dwellers when he takes them prisoner without their air supply makes him strangely sympathetic. Also sympathetic is Lady Dorma, back then a waif-like half-breed who seems to idolize Namor, but her motives are subtle and never spelled out for us. Further, at this point Namor and Dorma do not know they are bulletproof (nor do we, though we find that out about Namor in the next installment) and that turns the sense of menace back on them by story's end (which is not really an ending, but more of a cutting-off point where Everett simply ran out of pages).
Points are docked for senseless violence (Namor never faces repercussions for the deaths he causes) and, well, it's just too weird for me that some of the merfolk have faces like catfish while others don't.
“The Masked Raider.” Grade: B-.
The layouts here never get more than 10 panels long, averaging 8 panels per page. The artwork (signed simply as “Anders”) is dismally inadequate – when everyone is dressed like a cowboy, you need to be able to draw faces so they all look different. Most everyone here is a western stereotype. Our hero, Jim Gardley, reinvents himself by getting back to nature as he hones his skills. His strength comes from exiting society and living free, the cowboy way. The corrupt sheriff, idiot that he is for falling for the pretend-to-be-sick-in-the-jail-cell routine, at least neatly repents before story's end, which is probably more important for the ending than seeing the Bruder Gang shot up or lassoed.
“Jungle Terror.” Grade: D+
Only 1 12-panel page here, but there's still a lot crammed into this “complete adventure story” about diamond thieves stealing from Amazon savages (you can tell the good thieves from the bad thieves because the good thieves brought a kid along). There's planes crashing, people being shot, and tons of coincidences to move the plot faster, but it's all happening to characters so cardboard they make the Masked Raider look like Citizen Kane.
“Burning Rubber.” Grade: C.
A mini-soap opera about a race car driver/inventor whose girlfriend has to find a buyer for the gas feeder he's using before the prototype his race car is using explodes (or something). She saves his life, then he mistakenly (it's irony) scolds her for being selfish, and somehow the buyer never questions why he'd be interested in a gas feeder that makes race cars explode.
“Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great.” Grade: C.
The boyhood adventures of Ka-Zar have nothing to do with Zabu the sabre-toothed tiger and the Savage Land in Antarctica and everything to do with ripping off Tarzan as directly as possible. Ben Thompson's artwork is rough every time it does not appear to be traced from photo references. The pages average 9 panels per page, but the last page is a real rush job where at least 2 pages of story are squeezed into 11 panels. That said, I like how every animal has a name that Ka-Zar (actually David Rand; the name Ka-Zar is somehow given to him by a lion named Zar, even though it can't talk) somehow knows. I also like the explanation for why Ka-Zar and his father never leave the jungle – the father takes a blow to the head and goes crazy, thinking that he IS home in the jungle. The story is also pretty dark, since we have to read about how both of Ka-Zar's parents die in depressing circumstances.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Century Man 1901

[From 2005, the beginning of an aborted effort to write the biography of the 20th century's Century Man as a novel in chronological order. This version of the character is no longer compatible with the current "canon" for the Century Men.]

January 1901

In the last remaining seconds of the year 1900 and the 19th century, a bugler from the First Illinois Infantry played "Taps" at the corner of Madison and Dearborn Streets. Horns blared and revolvers were fired recklessly into the air as the clock bells tolled the changing of the century. After the last stroke tolled from the bells, the bugler played "Reveille." Those who stayed up to celebrate the New Year despite the bitter cold either went back to their parties or went back to bed and the comfort of warm blankets. The latter is what I did.

My life both before and after the start of 1901 was so different that I will not bother you with many details of the former. I was a happily married man, a father, and -- due to the hard work and discipline of my father -- enjoyed a life of privilege. Indeed, though I was president of several companies and organizations, I had never worked hard in my life until I began to take on more company duties of my father’s these past two years since his health began to decline. It wasn’t the physical demands of the job, though, that made it so bad. It was visiting the stockyards. There was the horrible sound. There was the smell. The stench of death was as bad or worse. Oh, flocks of tourists always came and watched out of morbid curiosity, but to endure the sound and the smell day after day took stamina and willpower.

My father always had, besides riches, stamina and willpower to spare. I had always meant to tell him how I admired those characteristics. I believe I had made a long list of such things in my head the morning I received the phone call from his doctor. His myocarditis was worsening, they told me, complicated by pneumonia. I had taken the call while visiting the stockyards office. I recall how difficult it was to hear the words over the squealing of the pigs in the yards.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Century Man Story Synopses

[The Century Man is a very old character concept of mine, dating back to at least 1995 when he was a 19th century character called the Miracle Man (which, at that time, I didn't know was a copyrighted name). The Century Man has gone through several names and been transplanted to different times and settings through the years -- none of which contradict each other because the Century Man is actually a lineage of superheroes. Below is a series of story synopses I had done back in Aug. 2006 when I thought writing about the 20th century's Century Man circa 1940 was the best route to introducing this character concept. Right now, though, I'm working on a comic book about the 21st century's Century Man, that I think will appeal to a broader audience. These stories, though, might wind up being a back-up feature someday...]

CENTURY MAN: 1940
#1 “Farewell, Dear Sir”
Jan. 20, 1940. As Britain halts U.S. ships at Gibraltor, the U.S. waits for an explanation from the British embassy. The chief ambassador, however, has gone missing and the U.K. thinks it could have been deliberate retaliation. The Century Man follows the ambassador’s trail to a black nightclub that is a front for fifth columnists.

CENTURY MAN: 1940
#2 “All Aboard for Brazil ”
Feb. 14, 1940. A scientist researching medicine to fight paralysis is stranded in Brazil , afraid to travel by boat because of German U-boats. The Century Man flies down to Brazil only to find the scientist missing, but stumbles on a secret harbor where German U-boats are being allowed to refuel. The Century Man trades his neutrality in exchange for the scientist, who was being held by the Brazilian authorities who wish to cultivate the substance he found to use as a drug.

CENTURY MAN: 1940
#3 “Black Monday”
March 4, 1940. While rescuing people in New England from a killer ice storm, the Century Man encounters a grizzly doctor who is collecting frozen bodies.

CENTURY MAN: 1940
#4 “The Roaring Beserker”
April 10, 1940. The Century Man arrives in Greenland on a mission to check for German occupation. Sure enough, the Germans have established a U-boat dock here already, but this time Tim has orders to wreck it. Unfortunately, the Norse god of beserkers, Modi, is in Greenland at the time and itching for a fight with the Century Man.

CENTURY MAN: 1940
#5 “Ill-Made Politician”
May 28, 1940. Chomping at the bit to return to the European theater and fight the Nazis, the Century Man appeals to his commanding officers and to the politicians of Washington to declare war, or at least send him over. At the same time, he spends quality time with his wife and their young children, Tyler and Elizabeth. If he goes to war, this could be good-bye.

CENTURY MAN: 1940
#6 “The Century Man Goes East”
June 1, 1940. The Century Man is given permission to fly to France and aid with the evacuation of British forces from France at Dunkirk. Tim guides ships across the Channel and defends them from German bombers, gaining the trust of the British officers who fear his supernatural powers.

CENTURY MAN: 1940
#7 “The Century Man Meets His Match”
July 10, 1940. With the 400,000th British soldier cleared out of France, the Century Man remains behind in Dunkirk to evacuate citizens, even though this is outside the purview of his orders. Oddly, Tim finds a group of citizens unwilling to move – a coven of werewolves who are in fact waiting for the German forces to arrive in order to infect them with lycanthropy.

CENTURY MAN: 1940
#8 “Harder Than You Think”
August 18, 1940. The Germans launch another massive air strike against southern England. The Century Man does his best to intervene, but finds himself also under attack by werewolves who have infiltrated the British Army.

CENTURY MAN: 1940
#9 “Blackout”
September 14, 1940. London is blacked out, German bombs fall on the city, and the Century Man is being hunted by civil authorities because of high-placed werewolves – leading to a battle between Tim and the first werewolf – now a member of Parliament.

CENTURY MAN: 1940
#10 “Realm of Politics”
October 27, 1940. The Century Man returns to the U.S., testifies before Congress that the U.S. should go to war, and meets with the vigilante, Goodfellow, to debate if costumed vigilantes should go to war too.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Gamers

[Another project I started in the last year was a romance novel about gamers. While I still think the project has merit, I hit the snag of how to describe game sessions to non-gamers in a way that would make interesting reading. Anyway, this is how that project started.]

When Julie asked where the gamers were, the ladies at the circulation desk had given her a peculiar look, like she had just asked for spoiled vegetables at the grocery store. With a judgmental look and a disdainful point of the finger, Julie was directed to the Sassafras Lake Public Library meeting rooms. Cautiously, as if approaching a wild animal, Julie made her way into the wing of the library reserved for functions and gatherings. She was lucky it was not a wild animal she was approaching, as she only had a small purse on her for protection which, due to an unpleasant encounter at a park last year, she knew to be barely sufficient in size to repel an irate goose attack. The foyer before the meeting rooms was empty and warehouse-like, with the doors to the meeting rooms all closed. Julie moved to each door and listened to them, hoping to detect occupants in this manner. At the second door, she did not have to listen hard at all, for a peal of laughter erupted from inside she could have heard from several feet away, followed by raised voices.

“Goin’ down!”

“Nice kill!”

“There are at least two lizard men left, you know.”

Julie put her hand on the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. The response was that the noise quieted down inside. Since no one answered her, she opened the door.

The room inside was dominated by two folding tables set up in a T-shape. There were four chairs around one table and only one chair at the other table, facing the others. The young man sitting alone and facing the others had the most books and papers stacked around him, with a colorful cardboard folding screen standing as a barrier between the other four people and his possessions. He was, Julie guessed, about 20 years old. A quick glance at the other four revealed that they were all the same age or slightly younger than the man behind the screen.

“I’m sorry,” the man behind the screen said to her politely. He looked to be tall, broad-shouldered, clean-cut, with sandy blonde hair swept to the side of his forehead. His short-sleeved polo shirt showed off that he worked out. He was the type of guy Julie used to give her phone number out to when she was dating. “Were we being too loud?”

Julie had to think about that for a moment before she realized what wrong conclusion he had reached. “Oh, no, I don’t work here. I came to see you.”

“Me?” the man behind the screen asked. The other four guys snickered.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Shah of Parsa

[This is an original story I started in 2007. After 9 pages, I got stumped and gave up the project, at least for the foreseeable future. Here is how it starts.]

In the palace of the shah, in his white marble pillared audience chamber, Xshayarsha, Shah of Parsa and Emperor of the Achaemenids, took the parchment scroll held before him by his kneeling chief scribe. The scroll was heavy, wound thick around its gold dowel, and glittered with the jewel-like painted cuniform letters in sharply written Elamite. Once the scribe verified it was complete, Xshayarsha dismissed him. Then he took the unusual step of having his court cleared immediately. The palace guards were surprised, but obeyed at once. His courtiers were largely obedient too. They shuffled noiselessly out of the chamber, a sedate parade of men in women in high-waisted robes.

All left save Hadassah. Hadassah, once favored concubine, now first wife of the shah, head of his harem, and ruler of his heart, was alone immune to her husband’s commands. She walked nonchalantly past the row of Xshayarsha’s personal eunuch guards, seemingly admiring how they all stood as erect as statues waiting for their lord’s commands.

“What troubles you, my lord?” Hadassah asked softly as she glided across the room to the shah’s dais. Xshayarsha was on his feet now, walking from his throne and still holding the scroll in his hands. She intercepted him, fell into step right behind him, and followed him as he moved to the balcony overlooking his courtyard, so deep in thought it was as if he were sleepwalking.

The courtyard below presented a beautiful collage of fountains, gardens, and statuary that stretched across the palace grounds to the base of his father’s palace opposite his. The fountains were studded with gemstones that sparkled in the sun. Walnut, maple, and mulberry trees dominated the flora of the gardens, providing ample shade for the ancient leaders of Parsa, now immortalized in bronze and stone. In the midst of all this, a lamassu guardian – sphinx-like – lifted its head and quietly observed the arrival of the shah. Its wings remained folded against its bovine flanks.

“Your lord?” Xshayarsha echoed with bitter sarcasm. “Then why do I feel more like a slave than a shah? I could be out conquering foreign lands or dealing with the nomads that harass our borders. I could be leading armies.”

“You do great things right here, my lord,” Hadassah said earnestly, but Xshayarsha turned on her sharply as if she had insulted him. But that moment of anger in his face was already gone. It had melted away and been replaced with a tired, sedate countenance. His next words sounded self-reproachful instead of bitter.

“I while away my best years here at the palace because I cannot resist you. You were a concubine when I added you to my harem, and now here you are -- my first wife. You rule my harem and, through it, you rule me.”

“You give me too much credit that I do not deserve,” she responded quietly, but he did not seem to hear her and continued.

“When I think on how great a man my father was…” he said, staring off the balcony into space and gripping the fat scroll tightly in his hands.

“Every woman of yours knows what it is like to live in the shadow of a great man,” Hadassah said. “I understand. That is why you grow melancholy whenever a new part of your father’s history is written.”

Monday, October 20, 2008

Original Character Concepts: Golden Age Heroes

[The following are some ideas I've had for original 1940s superheroes. At least for now I don't have a project to go with them, though maybe someday they'll wind up in Hideouts & Hoodlums.]

Supplejack, Clarence Kerr, is a 30-year old Australian immigrant to the U.S., having arrived in 1941. He left his native country, as he acquired his powers by eating the berries from a magic supplejack tree venerated by aborigines who are still looking to punish him. Naturalization delays kept him from being able to enroll in the war for his adopted country until late 1942. His white jacket is embroidered with a leafy, berried vine motif, the supplejack plant and match his white gloves. He is buff and strong, able to lift/press 800 lbs., but can also stretch his body to three times its normal length or width. His pliable body is bullet-resistant. He married last year.

The Baton, Bryan Weaver, is a 34-year old Sgt. Major in the Marine Corps. He was a track star in college when he met Fletch. The two of them bemoaned the state of the world and decided to train themselves until they could do something about it, but inspired by swashbuckler movies, they would do it with archaic weapons instead of guns. In Bryan’s case, he hated guns because his father had committed suicide with a gun after the Great Stock Market Crash. That was 1935. Bryan chose to become a weapon master with the quarterstaff or, more specifically for him, an aluminum baton. The team of Fletch and Baton began battling crime in 1939. In 1942, Bryan reluctantly learned to fire a gun when he joined the Marines. He is engaged to be married.

Roc, Dixie Green, is a 26-year old woman who can transform into a condor with a 24-ft. wingspan. She was a schoolteacher with a romantic love for Arabian myths who was given a book by a mysterious stranger. When she reads it, she falls asleep and wakens as Roc. During the war, she gave up teaching to work in a factory and fell in love with the plant owner. But then she fell in love with Hawthorn too. She left the plant owner (after their engagement) to marry Hawthorn 3 years ago. Now she is pregnant.

Fletch, Roland Quigly, 34, was into archery in college before he and his best friend Bryan even made their pact. Like Bryan, Roland hated guns, but Roland hated guns because his father had, during high school, threatened Roland with a gun if Roland did not bring up his grades. It was Roland who suggested costumed identities for their vigilantism, as he did not want his father to know he was doing good things with his life. That changed when Roland openly joined the Marines and was reconciled with his proud father. While Bryan quickly gravitated to becoming an officer, Roland became an M.P. Roland has a serious girlfriend.

Hawthorn, Carl Hambledon, 35, was a bookish clerk with no future and a love for Nathaniel Hawthorn’s writing when he fell asleep for 3 days under an enchanted tree and woke with the ability to cause brambles to spring up around him.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Biddle

[This is the beginning of my first submission and rejection to F&SF magazine, earlier this year. I plan to rework it before submitting it to Realms of Fantasy, taking out a lot of this world-building.]

It must be remembered that, as late as the third rein of King Nusser, there were still many beautiful forests in Gondland. The Forest of Dolambor was wild and old and, for all its bountiful splendor, best viewed from a distance -- as many a hunter or trapper from the Earldom of Ahbrek could tell. The smaller Forest of Strood was quiet and serene and virtually undefiled, at that time, by the woodsmen of Wood Dale. There were druids in Strood in those days and good tax-paying druids too, so Valdert, the Baron of Walstren, wisely respected their reverence for the trees and avoided much grief that would later beset his successors. But for sheer diversity, there was no topping the Forest of Dindappen. Vertically, Dindappen peaked at Cherval's Hill, an almost mountainous hill virtually bursting with natural springs that fed half the waterways in the forest. The Cherval River sprang from here, quickly formed rapids, and then changed its mind and decided to meander more lazily to where the Dindappen Forest bottomed out, in the Deep Fens at the south end of the forest. Though few risked dealing with the indigenous scumwalker beetles in the fens, it would have been worth it to hear the chime willows when the wind hit them just right. Chime willows were only the most exotic of a score of specimens of coniferous and deciduous trees that could be found in the diverse Dindappen. Its wildflowers were the sweetest smelling, thanks to the indigenous honey iris that dominated huge swaths of the undergrowth, yet rankweed flourished in the vicinity of the Deep Fens.

West to east, a road cut through the Dindappen and linked the free towns of Mistdale and Whitewood. It was an old road, fashioned long ago by the Crycians before the Sergians even came to this land, and made as they fashioned roads, built on a high earthen escarpment. Yet even the Crycians could not or would not build their road straight through the forest and the Old Road, as it was now called, snaked back and forth, though not nearly as wildly as the Cherval. The forest had grown even higher and all along its route, the forest threatened to swallow the old road.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Adapting Keep on the Borderlands to Blackmoor

[From my 2nd ed. AD&D Blackmoor campaign, currently on hold. The version of Blackmoor I was using is a combination of Dave Arneson's Blackmoor and Gary Gygax's Blackmoor. Likewise, the Keep on the Borderlands I was running was a combination of the original 1980 module, Return to Keep on the Borderlands, and Hackmaster's Little Keep on the Borderlands. The following is largely a reworking of material from Little Keep.]

Location
The eastern-most, and largest of Gloomen County’s three North Keeps is Kendor’s Keep. Kendor’s Keep is located in the forested Westwood Hills, roughly equidistant from Lake Gloomey and Vestfold, both 50 miles away. It is five miles west of the Sherpty Channel and two miles northeast of the Village of Sittingham. The remote Hamlet of Herntable is nine miles to the northwest of the Keep. Both Kendor’s Keep and the Village of Sittingham are located in the Westwood’s Throat, a strip of land free of forestation that runs southwest from near the edge of Sherpty Channel and opens to the fields surrounding the Village of Chattingham (almost halfway to the Town of Lake Gloomy).

Background
For 200 years, the Archduchy of Blackmoor and the Barony of Coot have been at odds. Coot has invaded twice, both times striking primarily at the Earldom of Vestfold. The County of Gloomen has been spared the brunt of both assaults, but its counts have always been conscious of the mere 10-mile wide channel separating Gloomen and Coot. Mainly out of fear of Coot, the north part of the county is largely deserted, save for a few hamlets and the three North Keeps.

The easternmost keep was built after the first Coot Invasion and was built to be the largest, for fear that the Sherpty Channel and the old road leading from it to Lake Gloomey (now gone and replaced by paths; only the Westwood’s Throat remains to show where the road once was) could be used as an invasion route by the Cootons. Kendor was the first castellan who oversaw (and, it is said, even helped plan) the final stages of construction of the keep 100 years ago. The stone for the keep was quarried from Sittingham, Chattingham (its stone quarry was played out 50 years ago, though), and even Prestone. Kendor’s Keep has always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the Village of Sittingham, receiving most of its foodstuffs from there (and most of its finished goods from Lake Gloomy or Harblebury). Sittingham is also where most of the conscripted soldiers have to go to unwind when off-duty, so Sittingham has a whole section of the village set aside for their kinds of needs.

Kendor’s Keep sat uncontested for its first 25 years. At that point, the village of Sage’s Tower was fortified and a concerted effort was made to drive monsters from its peninsula. Swamp orcs fled to the southwest into the Westwood and -- although too weak in numbers to attack Kendor’s Keep – they essentially laid siege to it for three years. In that third year they were assisted by goblins and gnoles dispatched from the Egg of Coot and nearly overwhelmed the keep’s walls, but were wiped out in their fruitless assaults. This occurred simultaneously with the First Coot Invasion in modern times and was seen as a testing of Vestfold’s neighbors, if not an outright effort to outflank Vestfold. The men-at-arms at Kendor’s Keep were told to remain vigilant, but instead celebrated and two generations of their successors grew increasingly complacent.

That complacency was broken 38 years later – 35 years ago – with the Second Coot Invasion. This time, while the Coots again focused on the Glendower-Blackmoor area of Vestfold, a sizable force of 3,000 goblins, gnoles, and orcs sailed down the Sherpty – just as the counts had always feared – and assaulted Kendor’s Keep. The monstrous forces overwhelmed the walls and slugged it out with the defenders in the streets of the Middle Bailey. Half of the men, women, and children in the keep died that day, but the keep held. Luckily, allies had rallied around Blackmoor in anticipation of this invasion. Rovers of the Barrens rode to the keep’s rescue in numbers said to be 1,500. The keep’s invaders were routed.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

EPA Report

Today [Nov. 19, 2004], Karen and I attended a workshop in Chicago at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 Library. The subject was the EPA Web site or, more broadly, finding EPA information online. Our speaker was Penny Boyle, the librarian at the EPA , who is technically a contracted employee for the EPA; but she was well-versed in navigating the site and had an impressive understanding of its contents that even held up to my questioning after the lecture. The lecture itself ran over its two-hour allotment, and she did begin speaking and clicking rather fast towards the end as she tried to cram everything in. I will summarize some of her most useful tips and observations below. I have also arranged the discussion more thematically, whereas she had followed more closely the organization of the Web site. Karen is adding material to this report.

Firstly, I was impressed by her candor -- we were warned against the EPA Web site's search feature. Though much improved over just a year ago, it was still producing less relevant hits than most search engines, such as Google, could produce. She also offered a helpful tip on Google searching -- that when searching for a URL in the search bar as opposed to the URL bar, it helps to leave off the "www" at the beginning.

There are quite a few methods to search for EPA publications on the site. The site catalogs far many more documents than are available in full-text format online. Under the Information Services page, on the Welcome to the EPA Publications Source page, there are three methods of accessing EPA documents. The National Publications Catalog has 7,000 paper and electronic documents cataloged. The National Environmental Publications Internet Site (NEPIS) has even more documents, 10,000, all available electronically. The documents are not in more familiar formats like .html or .pdf, but .tif. It reminds me of LC's American Memory Web site. Then there is Publications on the EPA Site, which groups publications by subject. A lot of these documents, unfortunately, are so technical that they would go right over our patrons' heads. Another way to find publications that she showed us was under For Kids, then under Teachers' Site, where one finds Order Education Materials from EPA. It's an annotated list with the option of ordering or downloading copies. It's also possible to find Region 5 (our region)-specific publications under Finding Answers (http://www.epa.gov/region5/publications/index.htm).

There are multiple places on the site where one can search by subject. Some lists are as short as six or so of the most common subjects. Quick Finder, at the top of the EPA home page, has 29 subjects -- but this list can be exploded into an alphabetical list of about 900 subject terms. Librarians at the EPA library assigned these subject terms and coded the metadata.

The EPA site can help with tracking environmental legislative history under the Laws, Regulations, and Dockets page. There are several links off-site, like for Code of Federal Regulations at GPOAccess. EPA has its own database for the Federal Register. I asked our presenter how it compared to searching Federal Register on GPOAccess. She was familiar enough with both to suggest that EPA's version is easier to search by date, while GPO's version is easier to search by subject. Most impressive. EPA has a database of environmental laws, but our presenter didn't recommend it, as it is sometimes as dated as 1990. She recommended instead the U.S. Senate Commitee on Environment & Public Work's Web site (http://epw.senate.gov/envlaws/envlaws.htm), which is much more current. EPA Dockets, or Edockets, are collections of documentation used in crafting regulations. The EPA dockets began being collected in 2002 and contain only national, not regional, information. A related source is the Non-Binding Guidance Documents collection, or Interpretive Documents Collection, are documents from the other end of the process, enforcing the regulations. Under Regulations and Proposed Rules, under Codified Regulations, are links to all 50 states, and their environmental regulations.

On a related note, the same page has a link to a beta version of Code of Federal Regulations, or "e-CFR." It is a joint project between the Office of the Federal Register and the Government Printing Office. While not official like the paper version, it will be more frequently updated (today, on the 19th, it as current up to the 17th). The URL is http://www.gpoaccess.gov/ecfr/. Is everyone else familiar with this already?

There are ways to search for data by location, mainly via the Where You Live page. There are eight locality-oriented databases on this page that can be used to quickly look up what watersheds are in your zip code (Surf Your Watershed), the air quality over your home (Airnow), or the location of the nearest toxic waste dump to where you live (National Superfunds Sites). Envirofacts lists local businesses, what chemicals they have, and whether or not the business is in compliance with EPA laws and regulations for those substances. Window to My Environment is an interactive mapping tool that is useful for pulling together disparate information (ranging from surface water to population). However, there is no guide that explains what every feature is supposed to look like, so the more features one adds to the map, the more muddled and confusing it looks.

The For Kids section has already been mentioned. The games there are unlikely to supplant those popular with our young patrons. Supposedly, these pages were designed for children ages four and up. I'd have to put it to the Tyler test to see if that's true.

The EPA Newsroom page has a news releases archive that, I think, we're unlikely to use. It only features national, not regional, news. There is an option for receiving news releases via e-mail that might be worth considering.

There are numerous ways to contact the EPA through the Web site. Under About EPA is an employee directory. The speaker cautioned us that because she, and a number of other EPA “employees” are not truly employed by the EPA, so their names do not appear in the directory. Also under the heading About EPA is a place for citizens to voice complaints. To find the complaint section, Under About EPA, then click on “10 regional offices,” and then a map of the U.S. appears; click on region 5, and the right side of the region 5 page has several choices, and toward the bottom you will find “Contact us Online” and under that heading is “citizen complaints.” There is also an Experts List with the name and phone number for subject specialists who can answer questions on a variety of technical issues. Another source is Information Products Bulletin, under Welcome to the EPA Publications Source. The bulletin is mainly about upcoming publications, but is also handy for names and contact information. Also, the online version is more timely than the paper version of this title. Almost every page on the site has "contact us" links at the top or bottom of the page, or both. Though I don't recall her mentioning it, there is a list of hotlines one can call for more information under Hotlines and Clearinghouses.

From here, things got hectic as time began running out on the presentation. The following were databases on the site she felt important enough to warrant mention. Index to EPA Test Methods is, true to its name, an index only. Some methods are online, but others are still available only in paper copy from the EPA libraries. The ECOTOX database deals with how chemicals and toxins affect plants and animals. IRIS, on the other hand, deals with the health effects of particular environmental hazards on humans. And my personal favorite, SoR -- Systems of Registries -- that includes the SRS-Substance Registry System, explains which law a certain substance is regulated under. The speaker also outlined a special section on the EPA website to aid librarians (we need all the help we can get!) in finding what we need. The address is http://www.epa.gov/region5/library/librarians-guide-epa.htm. The tan handout does an outstanding job of giving a brief description of each section, and what it contains.

Now armed with all of this awesome EPA information, all we need are patrons who care enough about our environment to ask!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Emergency Preparedness - Homeland Security & Avian Bird Flu Event

Last night [Aug. 24, 2006], I attended “Emergency Preparedness – Homeland Security & Avian Bird Flu Event” hosted by State Representative Terry Parke. I had low expectations for the even going into it, expecting a lot of back-patting between politicians and a photo op, but that was not the case at all. 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.

Terry Parke opened the panel discussion by bringing up the Streamwood microburst event of 1990 (http://www.crh.noaa.gov/ilx/trivia/juntriv.php, scroll down to June 29, 1990). That immediately piqued my interest because the event had occurred long enough ago that I did not think of that in terms of “emergency preparedness,” but it highlighted that the need for emergency preparedness at the local level is not a recent trend.

Mayor Roth made some remarks that were uninteresting. She brought nothing to the panel and was just there to be seen.

Dr. Stephen Martin, Jr., Director of the Cook County Dept. of Public Health (http://www.cookcountypublichealth.org/), did not have specific information to share (leaving that for the people under him), but did want to set the tone for the evening. He stressed that this was not the government “b.s.”ing people, but that they were there to give us the facts “straight up”. His combination of polished grammar and street talk lingo could only have come from Cook County, but may not have made the best impression here in the suburbs.

Luckily, Dr. Catherine Counard, Assistant Medical Director for Communicable Disease Control, gave most of the details for Dr. Martin. Nature called and I missed some of her part of the presentation, but the emphasis on the second half of her presentation was on sustained recovery (As Dr. Martin would say afterward, in the case of a pandemic, “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 it will take afterward.”). She talked about the difference between seasonal flu and avian flu. Cook County has dispenser sites ready to give shots for a medical emergency, one site for every 50,000 people in the county. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for avian flu. President Bush has funded a new vaccine initiative (http://arstechnica.com/journals/science.ars/2005/11/2/1706), but she conceded that such research will take 8-10 years. No indication was given how the county’s dispenser sites would be useful in the meanwhile.

Robert (I did not catch his last name), Special Agent for the F.B.I. Joint Terrorism Task Force, was a charismatic speaker, but with little specific information (he conceded jokingly that too much of it is classified or sensitive) to give us. The joint task force is the fourth largest field division of the FBI, which now emphasizes prevention post-9/11. “Forensic microbiology” is an area in which the FBI can aid local government in an emergency, citing a little-publicized case where subversives tried to influence an election by infecting the local populace with salmonella – by spraying it from bottles on buffet diner food – so they would be too sick to vote. He also emphasized, and others would reaffirm this after, that Illinois is ahead of many other states in terms of emergency preparedness.

Lt. Mike Marchese, Emergency Coordinator for the Schaumburg Police Dept., was a surprise. Though a mild, unenthused speaker, he was quite knowledgeable and web-savvy enough to be a librarian! He referred us to www.ready.com, a new site Homeland Security has put together, and told us about a Homeland Security video called “The Seven Stages of Terrorism” – which you can watch from the Schaumburg Police web site (http://www.ci.schaumburg.il.us/vos.nsf/schaumburg/JSCP-6R9RMF)!

Commander Randy Hart, Terrorism Liaison for the Streamwood Police Department, read from his notes. He spouted a lot of terms and acronyms at us very quickly, but I jotted down what I could. Streamwood is a member of the Illinois Statewide Terrorism Task Force (http://www.illinoishomelandsecurity.org/ittf/ -- another place you can watch that “7 Stages” video!). It has coordinated with the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and been compliant with NIMS’ uniform protocols since 2002 (http://www.nimsonline.com/nims_3_04/index.htm). It is a member of the Major Crime Task Force (MCTF) that allows its member communities to share resources and emergency manpower. The Streamwood police have joined the fire department as members of the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS)(http://www.ileas.org/). Also, we learned from him that Streamwood plans to have two squad cars equipped with live video feeds (ostensibly so HQ can make faster and better decisions, but can footage of Streamwood DUIs on the TV show “Cops” be far behind?).

Next was Dr. Anna Ruman, a vet who is also an Assistant Bureau Chief for the Ill. Dept. of Agriculture. She returned our focus to avian bird flu and stressed how extremely unlikely it is that avian bird flu will become the next pandemic, despite its media sensationalism. She explained that avian bird flu was nothing new – that the last U.S. outbreak had been in Texas as recently as 2004 (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/avian/outbreaks/past.htm). That if a highly pathogenic strain of bird flu reached the U.S., it would most likely show up first in the poultry industry. The poultry industry has its own plan for avian flu outbreak and would alert the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture immediately if it happened. They would have no motive to cover it up and save a bunch of ten-cent chickens that they can just slaughter and replace (I hoped she was not being literal about the ten-cent chickens, as they cost me $2 or more at the grocery store). Further, the Ill. Dept. of Agriculture routinely tests samplings as large of 8,000 birds of the Illinois bird population for disease.

Linda Reimel of the Ill. Dept. of Public Health and Regional Coordinator for Emergency Medical Services started out speaking strongly, but lost her nerve somewhere in mid-speech and seemed to almost be in tears by the end of it. Emergency Medical Services (http://www.emsresponder.com/), she explained, was the medical equivalent of MCTF. All county health departments in the state were coordinated through it. Hospitals can share their equipment and medicine statewide. Ambulance services, hospitals, and fire departments in Illinois are both EMS- and NIMS-compliant. She repeated that Illinois is ahead of other states. Louisiana did not have EMS coordination before Hurricane Katrina.

The last speaker on the panel was JoAnn Foley from Sherman Hospital. She was a spirited speaker, stressing more than anything family preparedness. She gave us advice such as “update your plan,” “know your neighbors’ emergency needs,” “stay three feet away from someone who is sneezing,” and “wash your hands often.” “Do not wait until an emergency to volunteer – get training earlier!” Parke added that every family should have a second emergency location for if home is the source of the emergency. As to professional emergency preparedness, she explained how Illinois is divided into 11 regions each with a “pod,” or head disaster, hospital in charge of coordination (“pod” is actually not an acronym, but refers to “like peas in a pod”). Sherman Hospital is our region’s pod hospital. Volunteer help will be important during a pandemic because absenteeism during a pandemic could be as high as 40%. Hospitals may restrict visitors to two trained adults, or open alternate care facilities when the hospitals fill up. For more information, she referred us to CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic/healthprofessional.htm) and the Ill. Dept. of Public Health (http://www.idph.state.il.us/avianflu.htm).

Some things came up during the question and answer session afterward. Sanitation, water, and other local departments all coordinate now just like the police and fire departments. Citizen Corps (http://www.citizencorps.gov) was recommended for homeland security volunteer programs and we were told by people in the audience that Arlington Heights, Elgin, and Palatine all have corps councils (for a complete list, see http://www.citizencorps.gov/citizenCorps/allCouncilList.do#IL).

Most of the information the police departments receive from the FBI is either classified, sensitive, or not considered of interest to the general public. What little is left is fed down to the public only through the police department’s press book. This was my question, and the Streamwood police commander spoke to me privately afterwards that he thought it would be a good idea for the police to offer this information more quickly to the public through a listserv or RSS feed.

Someone said more needs to be done to educate the public about these issues and that pamphlets need to be delivered to every homeowner. Terry Parke tried to put it politely that everyone on the panel was underfunded to do something like that. I resisted the urge to stand up and mention how much of this information is available from your local library, but did speak to Parke afterward about how the library could have been contacted in advance about this event and we could have showed up with all manner of documents on the subject and maybe even arrange on-site checkout. Parke politely asked me if I knew he was responsible for me having the job I have now and left it at that. But I did get my picture taken with him.

Last tidbits gleaned from the Q&A were – quarantine will likely not be attempted on a large scale during a pandemic. Unincorporated areas are covered by county emergency services. Emergency preparedness drills are federally mandated, with both field and “table top” drills. “We need to change how we make vaccine in our country” was the mantra of several panel members and some work in that area is already done. The USDA has developed a test for bird flu that can be ran in three hours instead of the two weeks it used to take.