Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dungeon! Solitaire Variant

 In the last few weeks, my girlfriend and I have started pulling out the old Dungeon! boardgame (1975, in the purple box) and playing it after dinner nights, to great satisfaction. I'm not entirely sure why I never suggested it before now; seems like an oversight on my part. Anyway, at the bottom of the box is a somewhat yellowed piece of paper with rules for a solitaire variant I came up with, probably from 10 or 20 years ago. Now that I'm living in the future, it seems like a perfect opportunity to share it with you.

Dungeon! Solitaire Variant –

Become the Elven Lord Wizard!



Gold Combat
Level Title Returned Rank Spells
1 Veteran Medium 0 Elf 0
2 Warrior Seer 2,000 Elf 0
3 Swordmaster Conjuror 4,000 Elf 0
4 Hero Magician 8,000 Hero 0
5 Swashbuckler Enchanter 16,000 Hero 1
6 Myrmidon Warlock 32,000 Hero 2
7 Champion Sorcerer 64,000 Hero 3
8 Superhero Necromancer 120,000 Superhero 4
9 Lord Wizard 200,000 Wizard 6


Solitaire character starts out as an Elf (Veteran Medium) with zero returned gold. Use the "Returning Prizes for Safe Keeping" advanced rule. Character always retains the find Secret Doors ability (1-4) and can use any magic item. Advance levels by returning to the Main Staircase and owning the indicated total of gold returned. Use the combat rank listed or any previous one, whichever is best for a given monster. Memorization of spells is as normal for any Wizard (within the limits shown above).

(Note: My copy of the game has a grand total of 219,000 gold pieces value in the entire complex.)


Monday, August 13, 2012

Book of War Terrain Tiles

Here's an add-on to the Book of War mass-combat supplement that I've been meaning to provide for a while -- terrain tiles for each of the different land types that may appear in the game. Over at the OEDgames.com site you'll find a ZIP file with seven photo-realistic images, each at the proper BOW scale (1"=20 feet), for use in the game. I'd suggest downloading and printing several copies of each in case more than one appear in a given game (more of the common ones, and maybe just one pond and one gulley, for example).


Thursday, August 9, 2012

Spells Through the Ages – Damage Types


On the Four Types of Damage in Original D&D

Sort of a short observation today. What follows are all of the spells in the Original D&D Little Brown Books that can cause direct and specific points of damage:
Fire Ball: A missile which springs from the finger of the Magic-User. It explodes with a burst radius of 2" (slightly larger than specified in CHAINMAIL). In a confined space the Fire Ball will generally conform to the shape of the space (elongate or whatever). The damage caused by the missile will be in proportion to the level of its user. A 6th level Magic-User throws a 6-die missile, a 7th a 7-die missile, and so on. (Note that Fire Balls from Scrolls (see Volume II) and Wand are 6-die missiles and those from Staves are 8-die missiles. Duration: 1 turn. Range: 24"

Lightning Bolt: Utterance of this spell generates a lightning bolt 6" long and up to 3/4" wide. If the space is not long enough to allow its full extension, the missile will double back to attain 6", possibly striking its creator. It is otherwise similar to a Fire Ball, but as stated in CHAINMAIL the head of the missile may never extend beyond the 24" range.

Wall of Fire: The spell will create a wall of fire which lasts until the Magic-User no longer concentrates to maintain it. The fire wall is opaque. It prevents creatures with under four hit dice from entering/passing through. Undead will take two dice of damage (2-12) and other creatures one die (1-6) when break ing through the fire. The shape of the wall can be either a plane of up to 6" width and 2" in height, or it can be cast in a circle of 3" diameter and 2" in height. Range: 6".

Wall of Ice:
A spell to create a wall of ice six inches thick, in dimensions like that of a Wall of Fire. It negates the effects of creatures employing fire and/or fire spells. It may be broken through by creatures with four or more hit dice, with damage equal to one die (1-6) for non-fire employing creatures and double that for fire-users. Range: 12"
That's actually it. Some things that I didn't count here: Spells that kill outright (cloudkill, death spell, disintegrate, finger of death). Spells that summon a monster to fight on your behalf (conjure elemental, invisible stalker, sticks to snakes, animal growth). Spells that come later in Supplement I (magic missile, ice storm, prismatic wall, blade barrier, etc.) Phantasmal forces, because it has no specific amount of damage indicated and is otherwise troublesome ("Damage caused to viewers of a Phantasmal Force will be real if the illusion is believed to be real").

So by OD&D Vol-1, there's only four ways that you can deal damage to someone -- magic fire, cold, lightning, and mundane weapons. And this explains why a lot of the monsters have those 4 things specifically called out, for example (from Vol-2):
OCHRE JELLY: The clean-up crew includes Ochre Jelly and similar weird monsters. Ochre Jelly is a giant amoeba which can be killed by fire or cold, but hits by weaponry or lightening [sic] bolts will merely make them into several smaller Ochre Jellies...

BLACK (or GRAY) PUDDING: Another member of the clean-up crew and nuisance monster, Black Puddings are not affected by cold. It is spread into smaller ones by chops or lightening bolts, but is killed by fire...

GREEN SLIME: A non-mobile hazard, Green Slime can be killed by fire or cold, but it is not affected by lightening bolts or striking by weapons...
While to modern eyes those may looks like a rather odd and motley assortment of things to call attention to in each case (fire, cold, lightning, and weapons) -- especially in later works like the AD&D Monster Manual -- in OD&D in makes a lot more sense, as it's simply a comprehensive treatment of every damage type that exists in the game. (Compare also to the table for Dragons with respect to their receiving different damage types.)

A couple more observations that we can make from this -- OD&D is actually fairly low in the "wahoo" scale, most spells being fairly subtle in effect, and quite compatible with classic swords & sorcery literature. The four spells above are the "flashiest" things in the game, elements that I sometimes wish weren't there for flavor sake, and yet even those have clear analogs in Conan stories (e.g., fireball, wall of fire; see here). After that, we might say that it's fairly obvious and even lazy game design to thereafter add more spells that just do alternate methods of damage output. When you later add something like magic missile with its untyped damage, then you wind up either in an ambiguous situation with regard to the monsters above, or else a cheesy short-circuiting of the game rules, depending on your perspective.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Reading Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser

Now let me spend some time lavishing praise on a truly excellent piece of art: Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories, as collected in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks The First Book of Lankhmar (which puts together the books Swords Against Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, and Swords Against Wizardry -- themselves collections of various short stories and novelettes).


Both the characters and the language are truly an immense joy to discover; they're completely fantastic, even if they have quite a bit of variance from one story to another (not a bad thing; kind of like what people say about the Beatles, you can see Leiber evolving and experimenting with his art form, not just churning out longer hack-work over time). It probably doesn't hurt that Leiber based the characters on real-life models, namely himself and his friend Harry Otto Fischer.

I've written about one of these stories previously, in the context of D&D thieves-reading-magic-scrolls. But I really started with Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser about a year ago with the comic collection by Howard Chaykin and Mike Mignola -- comic artists I admire greatly -- which frankly left me a little cold. The action seemed random, unpredictable, and unmotivated. Fortunately, there is a short 10-page preview of the original text at the back, which itself I found to be electrifying. The answer to this riddle is the immensely strong narrator's voice used by Leiber, with all its flourishes of language, cosmic description, and internal monologues and conflicting desires; much like a movie based on similar books, any adaptation can't avoid losing the essence of the thing, namely the amazing richness of the written word.

Here are a few sections that struck me as particularly memorable from the brilliant, if relatively down-tempo, 1968 short story "The Wrong Branch" (which on the prior point, has almost no spoken dialogue at all). It starts with this:
It is rumored by the wise-brained rats which burrow the citied earth and by the knowledgeable cats that stalk its shadows and by the sagacious bats that wing its night and by the sapient zats which soar through airless space, slanting their metal wings to winds of light, that those two swordsmen and blood-brothers, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, have adventured not only in the World of Nehwon with its great empire of Lankhmar, but also in many other worlds and times and dimensions, arriving at these through certain secret doors far inside the mazy caverns of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes -- whose great cave, in this sense, exists simultaneously in many worlds and times. It is a Door, while Ningauble glibly speaks the languages of many worlds and universes, loving the gossip of all times and places.


And then, during a danger-filled sea voyage:
Near Kvarch Nar they did manage to reprovision, though only with coarse food and muddy river water. Shortly thereafter the seams of the Black Treasurer were badly strained and two opened by glancing collision with an underwater reef which never should have been where it was. The only possible point where they could careen and mend their ship was the tiny beach on the southwest side of the Dragon Rocks, and it took them two days of nip-and-tuck sailing and bailing to get them there with deck above water. Whereupon while one patched or napped, the other must stand guard against inquisitive two- and three-headed dragons and even an occasional monocephalic. When they got a cauldron of pitch seething for final repairs, the dragons all deserted them, put off by the black stuff's stink -- a circumstance which irked rather than pleased the two adventurers, since they hadn't had the wit to keep a pot of pitch a-boil from the start. (They were most touchy and thin-skinned now from their long run of ill fortune.)

And finally:
As they were anchoring in Ilthmar harbor,  the Black Treasurer literally fell apart like a joke-box, starboard side parting from larboard like two quarters of a split melon, while the mast and cabin, weighted by the keel, sank speedily as a rock.

Fafhrd and Mouser saved only the clothes they were in, their swords, dirk, and ax. And it was well they hung onto the latter, for while swimming ashore they were attacked by a school of sharks, and each man had to defend himself and comrade while swimming encumbered. Ilthmarts lining the quays and moles cheered the heroes and the sharks impartially, or rather as to how they had laid their money, the odds being mostly three-to-one against both heroes surviving, with various shorter odds on the big man, the little man, or one or the other turning the trick.

Ilthmarts are a somewhat heartless people and much given to gambling. Besides, they welcome sharks into their harbor, since it makes for an easy way of disposing of common criminals, robbed and drunken strangers, slaves grown senile or otherwise useless, and also assures that the shark-god's chosen victims will always be spectacularly received.

When Fafhrd and the Mouser finally staggered ashore panting, they were cheered by such Ilthmarts as had won money on them. A larger number were busy booing the sharks.



One thing is that Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories are the most pitch-perfect representations of D&D play that I've ever encountered; turned around, you could easily argue that D&D itself is basically a simulation of the rogues-from-Lankhmar stories. They are venal, bold and aggressive, sanguine and insouciant in the face of the greatest wonders and outrages, bonded as a team unquestioningly even with a background patter of ongoing, casual dispute.

Another thing that happened is that I adored the language and tone so much that I started reading passages, such as those above, aloud to my lovely girlfriend Isabelle. I completely hadn't noticed it previously, but her observation was that listening to the Gray Mouser was practically identical to just hearing me talk normally (incessantly skeptical, technical-minded, kind of cranky, etc.), and that conversations between the two of them had the exact tone of many of our own ("It's us!", she exclaimed). Apparently I'm being called "Gray Mouser" around here now, for at least a few days.


It's really a wonderful body of work. In particular, the novelette "Stardock" may be the single most perfect, fully-formed and satisfying fantasy adventure story that I've ever read. It's like a perfect little gem (ironically). Highest recommendation.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Dark Knight Rises – 30 Criticisms

What follows is a fairly harsh criticism of the movie The Dark Knight Rises. If you liked it, of course, that's great, and I wouldn't seek to take away any person's enjoyment. However, I personally not been so utterly and shockingly dismayed, disappointed, and even offended by a movie since The Phantom Menace (which compelled me to write quite similar thoughts about it 13 years ago). The plot is stupendously nonsensical, while simultaneously mangling mythology to an enormous degree. I was bored, my girlfriend was bored (almost walked out, which we never do), people adjacent to us in the theater were bored. 

I'll start with a compliment – Anne Hathway's derriere is awesome. Now, on to the rest of the review; 30 criticisms follow. Major spoilers about everything are below.
  1. WHAT. ARE. YOU. SAYING?! Like the other Nolan films, we have the Batman gravelly voice problem; and now also Bane digitally distorted, non-understandable (plus no visible mouth to lip-read); plus Alfred constantly sobbing; plus Jim Gordon in the hospital not understandable, etc., etc. We were routinely just giving up on following dialog. Never been in a theater with such aggressive “shushing” from all over, people trying desperately to hear.
  2. Nuclear bombs don't remotely work like that (never seen it so completely mishandled). They don't go “unstable” over a 4-month period, but predictable to a certain minute or second countdown-timer. A “neutron bomb” can't be flown a few miles out of a city and be detonated without terrible effects on the people of said city.
  3. Why was Jim Gordon still carrying his speech in his pocket days later (to be stolen by Bane)? And it seemed to make very little difference in the end (why would people even believe Bane's reading of it)?
  4. So bored with the Robin development. Yes, it's pretty clear this young guy will be Robin – yet there's zero payoff in the film itself. I've gone to a Batman movie, and I'm watching more scenes with this ambitious, fairly vanilla police detective than I am Batman.
  5. The “Clean Slate” device makes zero sense. How can you possibly delete all your information from all databases in the world? What about off-site backups? Even a single company can't verifiably delete their own data nowadays because of all the cycling backups they keep.
  6. Alfred constantly sobbing. Alfred is supposed to be cool, calm, collected – perhaps more so than Batman himself. Always by his side, and always ready with the needed assistance. Alfred sobbing uncontrollably throughout the film and leaving Bruce is not the right story.
  7. Batman quitting. Batman taking a 7-year hiatus, coming back for one fight, and then running off with the Catwoman anonymously is not any variety of the Batman character I know. Batman is: persistence and dedication personified, never giving up, always the last of the DC heroes to go down (see: DC animated universe, Kingdom Come, Miller's Dark Knight Returns, etc.) Having him quit on a regular basis is just not right.
  8. Didn't you see the assassin's symbol on Talia's back (in the fireplace post-love scene)? It's right there! I honestly thought Bruce would calmly walk out of that scene and cleverly turn the tables on her. No dice.
  9. Frankly, I'm very sensitive to issues of cop corruption, militarization, and abuse. This is common to a lot of mass-market superhero movies, but: honestly, cops would not act like that (with empty hands, charging an army with automatic weapons firing at them). For some reason, comic books can get away with unflattering depictions like the Hulkbusters, or the MRD in X-Men; but the popular movies cannot. In Dark Knight Rises you get this NYPD-analog sacrificing their lives in mass battle. In reality you get: New Orleans post-Katrina.
  10. How could you possibly catch all the police in your underground trap? How, and why, would you bother feeding them afterward? How could they survive exposed for months through the cold winter?
  11. What was the football-arena scene for? Why spend time on cheap patriotism of a child singing the anthem? Why was the playing field detonated like that? What purpose did the whole scene serve (it was set up like people would be hostages, or arena detonated with them in it – a complete tease)? Was the runner just barely avoiding the detonation supposed to be tragic or funny? Simply nonsense.
  12. Copycat theme/plot elements – the cutoff of the island and taking the city hostage en masse seems identical to what happened in the last movie. Here, it seemed very much been-there-done-that.
  13. Why would suicidal terrorists wait to blow up the nuclear device? Supposedly they both have a trigger and the unstable bomb will go off automatically anyway. Why wait? Granted you've waited, why then bother pushing the trigger 10 minutes before it will go off anyway? Why keep driving your truck with it and grouse about being directed to where it can be defused? Why not just hit the brakes on the truck, die as you're planning to anyway, and make sure the bomb goes off? Why wait until the last second to flood the underground chamber?
  14. How could Batman heal a broken back in 3 months and get back in shape to fight Bane? How could he be knifed to apparent death through the ribs and then just run off and ignore it in the conclusion? Plus, we deserve some kind of tactical explanation for why he loses the first fight with Bane but wins the second (even after crippling months-long injury); we don't get any such thing.
  15. The Pit concept is just so awful. In the comics: Ra's al Ghul is an immortal villain because of a magic chemical bath called the Lazarus Pit; he has an assassin daughter he personally raised named Talia; and Bane grew up in a corrupt South American prison. For some reason, this was all scrambled up so that Nolan made “the Pit” this nonsensical prison someplace where both Talia and Bane were born (I had to look up the latter online, it was so unclear). It doesn't make sense that people can't escape; that people are being fed; that there's a doctor; that Bruce can't understand the doctor at first, but within a month he does; or that a female child survived. The most egregious thing is Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson) appearing in a vision to Bruce and saying “there are many ways of becoming immortal” before vanishing. Nolan – if you don't want to touch the immortality theme, then just don't mention it; lampshading the fact that you wimped out on it is the worst thing that you could do.
  16. Why do superhero movies routinely represent the case that the hero only fought their arch-villain one single time before they died? (See: Batman, Spiderman movies, etc.) Why not allude to a longer career? According to this trilogy, apparently Batman really only had 3 major battles in his entire career before retiring. In fact, the one villain who doesn't die on-screen (Joker in the prior movie) has his grand declaration sabotaged: “I think you and I are destined to do this forever” turns out not to be the case, because with Batman's 7-year exile and then retirement, he never fights the Joker, nor anyone else, ever again.
  17. Why does Jim Gordon (old and post-hospital) personally have to be fighting to plant the marker and jammer on the nuclear device/truck (and not anyone younger or more fit)? Why is there no explanation for the detector/marker not working? Why does the jammer have to be directly in contact with the bomb (but not 5 feet away)? How is it that old Jim Gordon survives the several-story truck crash, in the container unrestrained with a giant nuclear bomb clanging around inside?
  18. That damned Bat-cycle with the flip-around-sideways wheels so you can make a particular corner or whatever. Physically so absurd and ridiculous. Completely wrecked my suspension of disbelief when that happened.
  19. There's an early fight in a bar between Catwoman and a gangster over a deal gone wrong. People start shooting, people run out, a legion of cops are suddenly on the scene, there's someone on a fire escape with a long rifle – and at this point I completely cannot follow who's on what side, or who's shooting at whom, or what the hell is going on. Kind of set the tone for the whole film.
  20. The opening-scene attack on the plane is pretty ridiculously overdone. Why would Bane risk himself in that situation? Just have someone else do it, or something. It really seems like all the explosive damage to the plane would make it look like not an accidental wreck.
  21. What about Batman's robot leg-brace? Early in the movie, Bruce straps on a brace to his lame knee and kicks a big chunk out of a brick wall as practice; this seems to set up use of that kick in some way (to defeat Bane, or make the jump from the Pit, or something). But no; it's just another abandoned plot thread.
  22. It's just so long and boring. One example: As soon as Bruce missed one jump from the pit, I knew we'd have to see a set of exactly 3 jumps. So predictable; get on with it, already. Not to mention that the prior implication seemed to be that you died on the rope if you failed the jump; super-unclear. Why wouldn't people be trying every day, or sinking pitons, if that was a possibility?
  23. Why storm the stock exchange? If the point was just to make some fraudulent trades, can't that be done electronically from long-distance these days?
  24. If “exile” across the ice is sudden death (such that Jim Gordon literally chooses “death” instead when given the choice), why doesn't anyone turn around and attack the gunmen behind them in a last-gasp resistance?
  25. Detonating a bridge does not make a neat 2-foot wide slice slide out of it, leaving the person immediately on the other side of the slice uninjured. Structurally that's not how bridges work.
  26. Why Batman makes such a complicated fake-suicide at the end is utterly beyond me. (Nor do I think guns on his copter like that can completely level a skyscraper within a second as happens here.)
  27. Really not sure how the board of Wayne Enterprises can be keeping a secret resistance, in their own board headquarters (I guess), when they were so central to the villain's plot in the first place.
  28. The subplot with Matthew Modine's (scared/incompetent lieutenant) character was really poorly done and unconvincing, I thought. I suspect that the director is not truly committed to showing a cowardly cop. (See other cop point.)
  29. The hand-to-hand fight scenes were really pretty drab and uninteresting by the standards of most Batman movies. Maybe this is partly due to Batman and Bane being portrayed as similar strength and fighting styles, such that they were mostly doing the same thing and having no effect on each other.
  30. Using actual, real-life New York City for the long establishing shots was completely distracting and off-putting. We're too accustomed to seeing Gotham as a fictional location with its own geography and architecture; now I'm confused why the government agencies are labeled “Gotham” instead of “NY”.