Open Source Aerial Imagery

If you've seen my Book of War game-play posts (like here), then you'll see that I use flat paper illustrations for the various terrain pieces (like Marshes, Ponds, Streams, etc.). I'd like to make these publicly available, but the imagery I used is copyrighted and not re-distributable. I've looked for open source aerial imagery under a license that can be modified and re-distributed (at a fairly high resolution, like ~1m), but thus far I've failed.

At this point I suspect that it simply doesn't exist. Am I wrong? If someone could link to specific imagery and quote a license that says it's re-distributable, then that would be spectacular.


Chess Review

A delightful review of the game of chess that I just discovered -- from the perspective of it as a modern Euro-style race game:

At boardgamegeek.com.


Marvel Super Heroes X-Men -- Birthday

The X-Men Battle Evil Mutants and Robots on a Special Anniversary

This past weekend, my girlfriend and I trucked up to Boston to visit very good friends of ours for a house-cooling party (to commemorate the end of either them or I holding a lease there for a 16-year period). I figured this would be an excellent time for a game of Marvel Super Heroes (FASERIP), which we played on Saturday night. They're not hardcore gamers, but they've taken well to it in the past. I made a short adventure for the X-Men, and gave them a half-dozen character options to pick from. Their choices -- Colossus, Kitty, and Rogue (an interesting group, I think).

SPOILERS -- This adventure is largely inspired/ripped off from Astonishing X-Men #7-10. If you plan to read that and don't want it spoiled, stop reading here.

Chapter 1 -- Our 3 X-Men are the only ones on-site at the mansion, overseeing a group of 20 students. I made up 3 new random student characters for the adventure, named Screech, Vector, and Tapper (you can likely guess their powers; see notes below for more). The adventure begins with the X-Men in the Danger Room, testing a new simulation written by Kitty before running students through it. This appears to be a major manufacturing facility that they have to shut down, with human guards and a fully-functional Sentinel. Rogue starts taking out the guards, Colossus runs directly for the command console, and Kitty jumps out of the control booth (where she started the program) and phases through the Sentinel, scrambling its electronics and immediately stunning/disabling it (which is hard to do!). Then she phases through the command computer which should be victory -- but a glitch suddenly makes them each appear 40-feet tall and facing off with a brand-new Sentinel of their own. Fortunately, with apparent added Strength from size, they quickly take out the opposition and then shut down the program. Concerned, Kitty scans the program and finds extra code inserted from who-knows-where. They pull up security camera footage around the mansion for the prior day but can't find anything unusual (including checking for possible duplicates of themselves, thinking of perhaps a shapeshifter like Mystique; but no such luck). They also interview the three named students (inquiries determine they're the most skilled with computers), but can't find any flaw in their alibis.

Chapter 2 -- The next night Rogue is rudely woken up by a terrible banging in the elevator next to her room. She peeks out her doorway just in time to see their foes the Blob and the Toad come out of the elevator and turn into her room -- "Hey baby, time for our date!", he bellows. Rogue tries to punch him but misses. He says, "No one says no to the Blob!" and grapples her tight in a single meaty fist. She manages to wrestle one arm out and grab his forearm, knocking him out cold and stealing his invulnerability power, which she uses to also capture the Toad. Kitty and Colossus show up and check the Blob's cell phone (modern era here) which apparently has a week's worth of come-on messages from Rogue asking him to come and help her escape. The three kick the Blob and Toad out of the mansion, and the next day convince all of the students to hand over their phones for analysis, but no trace of any of the source messages.

Kitty tries shutting down all the communications from the mansion, and notices one stray signal frequency that doesn't shut down for a few seconds later. She decodes it and finds a message that says "wake up, prepare yourself, come tomorrow night to free me"; and she also detects a response message that says "yes, will comply". They come up with a plan: Gather all of the students in the dining room for a special banquet, while Kitty sends a fake message back in saying, "Change of plans -- meet me in the foyer at noon", watching for any response or student appearing in that location. No message is returned, but a few hours later they detect "Error condition please verify". Their investigations seem stymied at this point.

Chapter 3 -- The X-Men send the students to bed as usual, then station themselves at each of the three doors outside on the ground floor, waiting for some interloper. Sometime after midnight, Rogue hears an intruder near the front gate and flies forward to investigate; it's an actual, real Sentinel (partly damaged with a missing arm and no boot-rockets) powered up for destruction. Rogue picks up a car from the driveway and throws it at it; Colossus runs up and grabs one leg, trying to punch through it; Kitty tries to phase through it and disrupt its electronics, but the armor holds true. Meanwhile, it's shooting the X-Men with powerful energy beams and ice-rays, and calling out "Death to the oppressors!"; Kitty is about to run out of breath (which dictates her maximum phasing time here). Rogue smashes back into the mansion convinced that the student Vector is controlling it with his motion-manipulating force powers, but tackling him to the ground from the window he's looking at seems to make no difference. Finally Kitty stuns the Sentinel and Colossus rips off its leg, smashing it to the ground. Kitty opens a control panel and hacks into its still-functioning command unit; she sees a series of unnerving console messages like "I know what you are doing... Our lord watches all... You will pay for your sins".

Chapter 4 -- The X-Men gather up the students together, all 19 of them. Oh, wait -- weren't there supposed to be 20? Who's missing? No one can find Tapper, the Japanese boy who can cause others to exude a hard shell and become immobilized. The X-Men split up to different floors to search for him; Colossus takes the lowest level and heads for the Danger Room controls; but he finds that the door is locked. He punches through the Amazing material easily; he enters and looks through the view-screen to find the Danger Room alive with lasers, all bombarding a single form covered with a hard shell in the middle of it. (They suspect that Tapper has trapped someone else within, but ultimately it's Tapper who's been lured in and forced to use his power on himself for protection, and thus become trapped.) Rogue enters the control room and shatters the armored glass with one punch, but then finds it's backed up by a force field. Colossus hurls himself at it but is thrown back helplessly (it's Unearthly class). Kitty shows up and tries to phase through it but can't (that's a specific limitation on her power).

Rogue thinks to check the nearby room on the map of the mansion, labelled "Shi'ar Danger Room Support Computers", which they've never been in. She smashes down the door to find a massive array of complicated machinery, glowing tubes and conduits, all connected to a geodesic dome at the center. She tries to unplug the cables from the dome but is shocked by electricity and thrown back. Colossus enters (he has Remarkable resistance to electricity) and snaps all the cables off. An enormous flash of white light erupts and momentarily blinds them all.

When the light fades, the machinery is all gone from the room, having been refashioned into a female-formed robot. She says, "Shall we begin?" -- at which point Rogue immediately launches at her, but the robot dodges her punch. The robot kicks Rogue in the back. The others all attack, while the robot says, "Try your best, X-Men -- I know all of your powers!". Kitty phases through her but has no effect (I would have to fail an Monstrous Endurance feat roll with 01-20 to succumb). Colossus and Rogue both charge, but the robot dodges them both (costing quite a bit of villain Karma). Colossus lands a mighty punch, except that she materializes a Monstrous-level force-shield on her arm at just the right time to completely counter it. Kitty keeps phasing back and forth through her to no effect. Rogue attacks again, except the robot grabs her in mid-air and throws her face-first at Colossus: which thereby drains Colossus' power and knocks him out. The robot then forms Wolverine-like claws and stabs through Rogue's now-armored form (Red-level attack result), putting her down and stunning her.

At this point Kitty succeeds at a phasing attack, and temporarily stuns the robot. She tries to finish it off -- two more successful attacks will do it -- but 7 rounds tick by with no success. The robot wakes up and grabs the unconscious Rogue, forming a force-spike against her temple. "Surrender or I'll terminate your ally!" Kitty asks, "What are the terms?" The robot says, "You will un-phase and permit me to beat you senseless!". Kitty launches another attack at her, at which point the robot drives the spike into Rogue's skull; her Endurance starts to drop, one rank each round. Kitty and the robot continue to fight, neither getting the upper hand. One round before Rogue expires, Kitty unphases, makes a Reason feat roll to wrap her sash around Rogue's head and stop the blood loss, and at that point a crushing fist from the robot hits Kitty and knocks her out.

They find themselves woken by the students -- Screech, Vector, and Tapper -- with the Danger Room shut down and the Blackbird jet having launched with an unknown occupant. They track it down the next day by car in Virginia, abandoned near a military facility. The trail is cold, and the X-Men have a new deadly enemy in the world, but they saved the students from harm and retrieved their plane.

Commentary -- This went pretty well, if a bit longer than I planned on (which is always the case -- took about 4 hours for the whole episode). My girlfriend said it was the most enjoyable RPG she'd ever played, which is great news. My friend John said he was surprised and rather relieved when I pulled out MSH instead of D&D (something I have to remember in the future). It seems like there's a big benefit here, especially in one-off games with non-hardcore players, to provide pre-generated characters with which they have some familiarity (as from X-Men movies or cartoons here), and also have extremely brief character descriptions for (in this case, using the 2.5x4" hero cards that came with the MSH Advanced Game). It probably even helps to have just a single kind of dice in play (percentile). And I'm still playing without use of counters or miniatures for exact movement, because I truly prefer the faster pacing (I did use the map of the X-mansion from module MH-1 to give a sense of location and what resources they had available). There was some amount of frustration expressed from Kitty's player in regards to the investigation, and self-criticism from myself would be that the adventure was more railroaded than I would like, with probably not enough opportunity for players to alter the proceedings or possibly disrupt the villain's plan at the end. That's something I definitely need to improve on, especially in the context of non-location (non-dungeon) based adventures.

Final notes: We played this the evening of Saturday Jun-23, which marked the 100th birthday of Alan Turing -- genius codebreaker, inventor of the first computer and the principles of artificial intelligence. (And then sadly the victim of being hounded to death by the government for being a homosexual.) I felt it was nice to have in his commemoration an adventure revolving around themes of machines becoming sentient, people being tricked by messages from a computer, and the desire to break free and fully realize one's preferred life. I think it worked pretty well, and was thrilled to have very smart, game players and good friends with me. Thanks also to Joss Whedon who's done yeoman's work recently in the Marvel Universe, including the Astonishing X-Men run that originally had this storyline.

Here are the adventure notes I was using for this (PDF).


HelgaCon V - Games I Played

Convention Overview; Playing in Kobolds Ate My Baby; Thousand-Year Sandglass D&D

Two months have now passed since Helgacon, the annual mini-convention held by my close friends up in Massachusetts. It was, as always, a most awesome weekend of gaming (I'd say the best and largest to date). I've really wanted to share some of the experience, even if I was too busy for a while, and the time seems more distant due to big changes for some friends in the intervening weeks.

You can read more about Helgacon V straight from the primary organizer on Paul's Blog -- here and here and here and here.

Friday Night -- Kobolds Ate My Baby. My first game of the weekend was warming up as a player in Allister's game of Kobolds Ate My Baby. Not something I'd played before, and we had a really good time. Fairly large group for this game, like I think we had about 9 players or so, and kudos to Allister for handling that many people quite well. (We pretty much filled a room off the porch, and had commendably quick turn-pacing revolving around the room for actions, which is my favored and most simple mechanic for that.)

Our game (perhaps this is the default situation) featured us a group of slapstick kobolds tasked with infiltrating the nearby village and absconding with something like 15 human babies for a big feast. My impression is something like Paranoia with a bunch of backup characters available when you get killed. As usual with that kind of setup (IME), the body count is really as high as initially expected -- maybe 3 of us died over the course of the game (albeit me first, about 5 minutes in). The other thing is that I kind of expected from the atmosphere that we'd be doomed to fail, but turns out that's not the case. Our game was eminently winnable, at the end we did in fact accomplish our task through a combination of running, sling-shotting through upstairs orphanage windows, cozying up to humans as pets, and locomotive-banditry. Big celebration (for us, not the humans obviously).

Saturday Morning -- Thousand-Year Sandglass. This was the third year running for BigFella's "Thousand-Year Sandglass" Arabian-themed D&D campaign using Labyrinth Lore rules. It's a great game, and BigFella always has a number of stunning set-pieces for us to fight through (and it gets better each year). Every year, Paul and I have played a pair of brothers, human fighters named Jarib with nearly-identical stats. Once again we rounded up a new bunch of compatriots and plunged into the desert sands for treasure. Once again good-humored bickering commenced almost immediately.

The opening scene had us entering an Al Khazneh-style edifice and battling lizard men. Then we met an imperious sage who clued us in to the existence of an enormous jewel nearby. Entering that part of the labyrinth, we had to fight an terrifying, sandblast-breathing lizard-creature -- which fortunately had manacles and chains by which it could be restrained via a nearby secret winch room (thanks, guys!).

Then there was a room of vats of potentially explosive material, which we avoided by flying and attaching a rope. Then there was a chamber entirely engulfed in flames -- a test of bravery, as you could walk through it unharmed as long as you showed no fear. The next room held the magical gem on a pedestal, which gave of a keening sound -- surrounded by not one opposing party, but two (one monsters, the other human), both put to sleep by the gem (as we deduced). Here was our plan: send one of our henchmen in with waxed-up ears, grab the gem, and run to the other side of the illusory flames -- when the opposing parties wake up, maybe they'll finish each other off, and otherwise a phantasmal force to frighten them in the psychic flames should do the trick. That actually worked like a charm. The final room had a genie which offered us 1-3 wishes, although with a larger foe to fight based on our selection. We took just one wish to retrieve the treasure nearby, and only had to fight a man-sized genie, not the titanic-sized one (both of which BigFella had impressive models for). One of better successes, and we all made it out alive.

One thing's frustrated me a tiny bit the last few games was that we were procuring magic items and distributing them to the newer party members in need, who then didn't have the chance to show up the next time, thereby taking the treasures out of the game. This time I asked for the Jarib brothers to take the magic cache, with the promise that anyone who joins again next time gets first dibs. Hopefully that makes sense.

The other thing that was brought up was -- common issue -- the significant number of fighter henchmen that the Jarib brothers brought to the game (four of them, mostly run by myself). Since Paul & I happened to be at the head of the table, I was acting for my character plus the henchmen as quickly as I could (rolling a fistful of d20's for the whole bunch). It was suggested afterward that maybe the henchmen could be held off until the very end of the round, so as to not steal thunder & engagement space from the other players. I think that was a great suggestion and would be happy to do that -- although I know a lot of other games would just as soon have the whole bunch over with, especially if multiple players have a crew of henchmen like that. Good to think about.


A Puzzle

Here is a snippet from a certain Wikipedia article:
This allowed the exact citing of references, producing the rule, "One Author, one work (title), one piece of information" (Giesecke, 1989; 325).
My challenge to you is this: Can you tell me Giesecke's full name, and which of his works this originally appeared in? Exact citing of references, please!


Superhero Saturday

The Superhero Genre as Modern Urban Fantasy

Random thoughts I had one morning as a I dazedly rode the bus to school:

When I lived in the country I had more propensity to dream about D&D-type fantasy (forests and rivers and castles and caves)... In the city that doesn't happen so much any more, if ever... But I can see, traveling around New York, Brooklyn, working near Brighton Beach, as the original NYC-based creators did (Eisner, Kane, Kirby, Lee, etc.), peering around and wanting to infuse fantasy into the modern cars, trucks, sidewalks, skyscrapers, bridges, subways, planes, etc., that they saw. Not classical fantasy, but a work that necessitates something different; fundamentally modern and urban (specifically New York-based).


Friday Night Book of War

Trolls and Gnolls Attempt to Cross a Stream Under Orcish Arrow-Fire

So here's a game my girlfriend and I played the other weekend.We hadn't played in a while, since (a) I've been crushed and pickled by math-teaching, and (b) my girlfriend was on the other side of the planet for an environmental art residency for a month (link). So we were blowing off a bit of rust. Nonetheless, all the Advanced Rules are in play for us, all unit types in the published BOW booklet, Optional Weather & Morale adjustments, with 300 point armies.

Start -- Opponent at the top, with red figures indicating 100 Gnoll Longbows, along with two figures of 20 Trolls and one Frost Giant. I'm at the bottom with masses of Orc Archers (330), a Storm Giant, and a Gold Dragon (charmed?). The last piece of terrain set down was that winding Stream, placed by myself in as uncomfortable a location for the enemy as possible (in particular, with that narrow and unmaneuverable strip between it and the Marsh). Weather was found to be Cloudy (no modifiers to anyone).

Turn 1 -- Enemy moved units up to the stream, after which I moved all my units on the right flank a half-move. This allowed me to get a few shots off at long range and kill two Gnoll figures (but didn't have any morale effect).

Turn 2 -- Opponent had Gnoll Longbows stand & fire, while Trolls marched full across the Stream (slowing their movement). This allowed all of my forces to launch a full barrage against the ferocious Trolls and wipe them out completely! I actually had a surplus of attack dice that got wasted because of this, but it was well worth the cost. That's a tremendous blow to my opponent's main strategy.

Turn 4 -- Now we're engaged in a long-range missile combat. Her Gnolls & Giant are standing and throwing missiles, reducing my forces (but again, morale stays good). I've pushed forward and crossed the Stream on one side, and managed to rout her rightmost group of Gnolls.

Turn 5 -- I've lost my one unit of Orcs in the center, but managed to advance on the right and kill her Giant with arrow-fire.

Turn 7 -- Having degraded her forces to a single figure, on the last turn I've launched my Gold Dragon forwards for an auto-kill, engulfing the last group of Gnolls in Fire Breath. Victory to the Orcish Mob!

Commentary -- A pretty good example of the game, if more lopsided than usual. The terrain and weather were ideal for my cheap missile-heavy strategy (specifically: all terrain could be fired over, no orcish morale penalty from sun nor missile penalty from rain), and slowing the Trolls down with the Stream was key to my being able to eliminate them. Plus, my girlfriend being a bit rusty helped me. She seems pretty fired up now to give me a different lesson next time, yikes.


Failed My Saving Throw

Okay, so what's it been, nearly two months since I last posted? As I mentioned previously, I got a new full-time-plus teaching position this spring, and the avalanche of the workload just totally buried me and kept me from posting on things game related. (You may know that the first semester of any teaching gig is mega-intense, and then it gets sequentially easier.)

I just had final exams this past week, so I'm hoping I can do some at-least occasional posting here again. This weekend I went through and replied to unanswered questions in the comments here (so if you had a question from April, check back below). And, I also have a truly embarrassing giant mound of unanswered emails on gaming issues, which I'll try to respond to when I can.

Couple thoughts from the last several weeks -- Not normally a Joss Whedon fanboy, but he's provided some very fine entertainment recently. Consider: If you run Death Frost Doom through a cheese cloth and look at it kind of sideways, you get something that appears very much like the movie Cabin in the Woods.

Also: Enormous sympathies to my good friends and acquaintances who worked at now-shuttered 38 Studios in Providence. Having has a chance to visit earlier this year, the intensity and passion was tangible, and you truly deserved better. Epically tragic.